Tournament or toast?
The USF women’s basketball team must sit in limbo for the next week and a half before it finds out if it is bound for the Women’s NIT after a 71-68 first-round loss to Cincinnati in the Conference USA tournament Thursday in Forth Worth, Texas.
The Bulls, 14-14 overall after Thursday’s loss, remain on the bubble for a possible berth into the postseason tournament. A win against the Bearcats, who are in the RPI top 100, probably would have assured USF a spot in the field of 32. But even with the loss, USF coach Jose Fernandez said his team deserves the program’s first berth in the postseason.
“I think we still should get into the NIT,” Fernandez said. “(C-USA) should get five teams into the NCAA Tournament. Hopefully, we can get an NIT bid. I think a win today would have assured it. Now, we’re on the bubble.”
Though USF trailed by one at the half, the Bulls fought back and even had a six-point advantage with less than six minutes to play. However, the Bearcats battled back to retake the lead, 66-65, with a minute and a half to go.
USF forward Ezria Parsons gave the Bulls the lead again, 68-66, with a conventional three-point play with 1:07 remaining in the game. However, it was the last lead USF had in the game, as Cincinnati standout Valerie King, who scored a game-high 23 points, hit one of her five 3-pointers with 52 seconds left, giving the Bearcats a 69-68 advantage.
The Bulls had numerous chances to retake the lead in the final minute. Freshman Jessica Dickson, who scored a team-high 22 points, missed a layup with 30 seconds to go. Fellow freshman Rachael Sheats grabbed the offensive rebound but missed the put-back, and King grabbed the rebound and was fouled.
King hit one of two free-throw attempts to push the Bearcats’ lead to two with 21 seconds left. Junior Anedra Gilmore then drove the lane on USF’s ensuing possession but missed a layup. UC’s Leslie Knoch grabbed the board, and the Bulls were forced to foul again with eight seconds left.
Knoch missed one of two free throws, giving the Bulls a chance to tie the game on their final possession.
However, Gilmore’s potential game-tying three-point attempt was blocked, giving the Bearcats the win.
“The last three or four plays are the ones you remember,” Fernandez said.
“We had two or three good looks but couldn’t put the ball in the basket.”
The game might not have been as close if the Bulls were able to capitalize at the free-throw line. USF made 12 of 21 foul shots in the game, including just 3 of 10 in the first half. Gilmore, the Bulls’ leading free-throw shooter at 79.8 percent on the season, struggled the most at the foul line, connecting on only 1 of 5 attempts.
What makes the loss seem even worse is that the Bulls turned the ball over nine times in the game, while shooting 41.8 percent from the field.
“We didn’t help ourselves from the free throw line today,” Fernandez said.
Freshman Nalini Miller (16 points, six rebounds), Parsons (11 points, eight rebounds) and Gilmore (11 points, seven assists) joined Dickson in double figures.
The Bulls return home after posting the second .500 or better record in Fernandez’s four-year tenure.
Though the Bulls, No. 83 in the RPI rankings, sit on the bubble for a WNIT bid, they boast a 6-4 record in their last 10 games and have one win against a top-25 opponent this season. USF’s strength of schedule, which ranks 64th in the nation according to CollegeRPI.com, also helps when it’s time for the WNIT selection committee to make a final decision on who gets into the tournament.
However, one thing that could hurt the Bulls is a loss to Army in the second game of the season. The Black Knights are out of the RPI top 200.
The field of 32 teams in the WNIT will be announced on Selection Sunday, March 14.