They were two words that were usually only muttered during the beginning of the season, when USF coach Jose Fernandez was able to talk about expectations.
Those words expressed a simple goal that many premier teams take for granted, but for the Bulls in the two seasons prior to this one, it would have been a giant leap from the gutter.
However, after the Bulls dispatched Southern Miss 70-38 on Friday in the Corral, the largest margin of victory in a Conference USA game in team history, those two words — conference tournament — became a reality and can now be spoken with authority, as the team locked up a spot in Fort Worth, Texas in March.
However, the Bulls weren’t finished after trouncing the Golden Eagles and, in fact, incorporated two more words into their vocabulary with Sunday’s 77-60 victory against Tulane. Those two words: postseason play.
The Bulls (13-13, 6-7) moved two steps closer to perhaps securing the program’s first berth into the Women’s NIT with their fifth win in their last six games while also bringing their record to .500 for the first time since Jan. 9.
“Our coaches reminded us the other day that we can make history at this school, so everyone just feels like — I don’t know; it’s just a weird type of feeling,” freshman guard Rachael Sheats said. “We know we can win, and we know we can do it now, and we’re just taking it step by step. I don’t think we have anything to lose right now.”
But it didn’t start out well for the Bulls against the Green Wave (9-17, 2-11), as USF was forced to play from behind for nearly the entire first half. However, freshman Jessica Dickson cut the deficit to one on a baseline jumper that set a new C-USA freshman scoring record and then gave the Bulls a 29-28 lead with another jumper just before the half.
And that was enough for Fernandez to work with during his halftime address to his team.
“I told them (at halftime), ‘You guys got something really, really special,'” USF coach Jose Fernandez said. “I told them ‘You are two games away from a postseason berth, I think.’ And now, we’ve got one more.”
But it was a different feeling for the Bulls during halftime. As opposed to many games earlier in the season when USF got down early and began to try to force the issue, no one seemed to panic before the Bulls put together a good second half to run away with the win.
“We came into the locker room at halftime and nobody was really worried,” Sheats said. “We knew that we were better than this team, and we just needed to start putting the ball in the hole.”
And the Bulls did put it into the hole, making 51 percent of their field-goal attempts in the second half.
Dickson finished with a game-high 24 points on 10 of 21 shooting, bringing her scoring total this season to 486 points. She eclipsed Cincinnati forward Debbie Merrill’s C-USA freshman scoring record of 469 points and is only nine points away from breaking USF’s freshman scoring record of 494 points posted by Tammy Van Oppen during the 1993-94 season.
“She’s the total package,” Fernandez said.
Junior Anedra Gilmore nearly became just the third basketball player — men’s or women’s — to post a triple-double in school history. Gilmore finished with 15 points, nine rebounds and a USF single-game record 14 assists against the Green Wave.
The Bulls’ usual suspects also aided Friday’s victory against Southern Miss (14-12, 2-11). Dickson scored a game-high 22 points, while Gilmore had 12 points and nine assists and sophomore Ezria Parsons added eight points and 13 rebounds.
The Bulls play their regular-season finale Friday at UAB, a team USF defeated by 21 points at home less than one week ago. But with USF riding a three-game winning streak — its first three-game C-USA winning streak since 1998-99 — and with the average margin of victory being more than 20 points a game, the possibility of USF looking past the Blazers is not that far-fetched. But it’s something the Bulls hope won’t be a problem.
“I know that we’ve been winning, but we just have to humble ourselves right now,” Sheats said. “Anyone can win on any given day — that’s how this league works. We’re not safe, you can say, so we just have to take it one game at a time.”