Marissa Hamilton waited, and made sure to be ready when her time came.

The Great Valley native and Ellicottville High School graduate saw occasional playing time as a freshman and a bit more as a sophomore for the University at Buffalo women’s basketball team. But she hardly had room to complain about the team’s success in either season: the Bulls, coached by Felisha Legette-Jack and led by 2019 graduate Cierra Dillard, made the NCAA Tournament both of the last two seasons, including a run to the Sweet 16 in 2017-18.

Hamilton, who averaged 5.9 minutes in 17 games as a freshman and 11.1 minutes in 30 games as a sophomore, said she wants to win, so she didn’t mind a smaller role.

But now, she’s getting her chance. Hamilton has played in all 19 games so far for the Bulls (13-6, 4-4 Mid-American Conference) and started the last 10, most recently scoring nine points with five rebounds in 25 minutes in UB’s 98-93 overtime loss to Central Michigan on Wednesday.

“My first two years, I didn’t play as much as anybody would hope,” Hamilton acknowledged Thursday, “but what I took from those is everybody talks about the process, I talk about more of how you can get yourself through the process because mental health has a lot to do with that. Being able to just pick yourself up even when everything isn’t going right for you, being able to just keep working hard and knowing that eventually when my opportunity comes, I’m going to be ready. Obviously some people get opportunities earlier than others but just being able to be ready for when mine came. Now I’m ready and I’m trying to give everything I have to this team.

“So I feel like those two years really helped me figure out my place and how I can just better the team. I really just want to win and those first two years we were winning, so it has nothing to do with me, it has more to do with how I can help this team.”

The Bulls already looked to have a younger team in the preseason, with just two seniors (Summer Hemphill and Theresa Onwuka) and two juniors (Hanna Hall and Hamilton), along with seven sophomores and four freshmen. But they lost one of those upperclassmen for the season when Hemphill, the Big 4 Preseason Player of the Year and preseason all-conference selection, underwent knee surgery for an injury suffered before the season.

So Buffalo needed an upperclassman leader to step up this year.

“It feels great to be a leader, finally,” Hamilton said of her elevated role. “Being a junior, I know I have a lot of responsibility on and off the court, but just starting us off that first five minutes is really crucial to every game. Being able to have a part in that is really huge for our young team. Being there’s only three upperclassmen that can play right now, it’s a big deal.”

Hamilton has averaged 5.0 points and 4.3 rebounds in 23.3 minutes per game. She also plays a big part on the back of UB’s zone defense.

“For this team, I would say my responsibilities would be directing people on our defense,” Hamilton said. “As everyone knows, our defense isn’t ... normal, I guess. We run a completely different matchup zone and being on the back end of that, being able to just help people, direct them and then on offense, get the scorers open. I score a little bit, but my main role is to just help out the team, get us where we need to be, keep us composed, just as a junior working to help everybody out on the court.”

She had a season-high 11 points Jan. 11 against Ohio and a season-high 10 rebounds Dec. 7 at St. Bonaventure, a short drive from where she grew up and was Ellicottville’s all-time leading scorer in girls or boys basketball. So far, she doesn’t have one favorite memory of the season, but a handful of them.

“One of my favorite moments thus far, I guess it’s not a moment, it happens a lot: it’s like when we get an and-one,” Hamilton said, “or like at Bonaventure, I got an and-one and it changed the trajectory of the whole game, like it’s just that energy that we have for each other when we do something well. I just love that feeling of we’re doing something great for each other and just being there for my teammates is really fun for me.”

Hamilton said she still wants to improve her offensive game to become known for more than three-point shooting.

“Individually I want to become more of a scoring threat,” she said. “I know I’m known for three-point shooting, but I want to be able to also get people off the dribble, get people thinking about what I’m going to do, what’s my next move. That just comes with more skill work.”

Turning to team goals, Hamilton and her teammates want to make another run to the MAC Championship, after winning it in 2019 to earn an NCAA bid.

“It’s a surreal feeling and I would love to have that again,” she said of winning the MAC.

But the Bulls need to earn a top-four seed to assure a return to Cleveland, or else win an on-campus first round game. But competing for the MAC is an expectation at Buffalo.

“We hold ourselves to a high expectation,” Hamilton said. “Coach Jack always talks about having our goals and actually following through with the work to get there. So I would say we have high expectations, but it’s just what’s expected of us, to get there and get through all the obstacles. So I feel like we have those expectations, but they’re more (than) goals. It’s our standard. It’s what we stand for.”

(Salamanca Press sports editor Sam Wilson may be contacted at swilson@oleantimesherald.com)