Women secure tournament bid for first time in 26 years

The last time the USF women’s basketball team reached the postseason, assistant coaches Amy Wright and Tara Jones, along with all 13 Bulls on the current roster, weren’t even born.

Heck, USF coach Jose Fernandez was only six years old.

After a 26-year layoff from the postseason, the Bulls received a berth Sunday night into the Women’s National Invitation Tournament, the first ever berth in the tournament in the program’s history.

The only other time USF reached the postseason for women’s basketball was the 1977-78 season, when Joanne Rogers’ squad advanced to the Region III Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women tournament.

“It’s a long time coming and I’m just proud of our team, our student athletes and the coaching staff for all the hard work they’ve put in this season,” Fernandez said. “We’re very glad that our season is not over, and I think we have a lot of basketball (left) to play this year.”

The Bulls (14-14) will face the Richmond Spiders (20-9) on Thursday in Richmond, Va., in the first round of the 32-team tournament.

Though the Bulls did receive the first postseason berth in more than two-and-a-half decades, they were forced to sit on the bubble during the past week-and-a-half after falling to Cincinnati in the first-round of the Conference USA tournament March 4.

Though Fernandez said he wasn’t too worried about USF’s situation, he admitted it was tough being forced to wait until Selection Sunday to know his team’s fate.

“Anytime you’re waiting around and you haven’t controlled your own destiny, it’s tough,” Fernandez said. “It’s tough because we’re on the bubble, and it’s a tough situation when you’re on the bubble and with spring break players are wondering are we practicing for no reason, and you start wondering should we start looking forward to next year, and you start asking yourself those types of questions.

“(But) I thought our league was going to be strong enough. We finished .500 in our league and we lost the first game in the conference tournament, but I thought we were still in top 100 and it would be tough to leave us out.”

One thing that surely helped the Bulls was the success of the other C-USA teams this season. The conference gained three at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament, in addition to the automatic bid that went to C-USA tournament champion Houston. Also, six teams posted 20-win seasons, putting USF in good company when it came time for the tournament’s selection committee to extend invitations.

C-USA also sent four teams other than the Bulls to the WNIT.

But Fernandez also credited the non-conference schedule the Bulls played this season. USF, which finished with the No. 83 RPI ranking according to the last ranking released on ESPN.com, faced 13 teams that made a postseason tournament this season, including seven teams in the NCAA Tournament. Three of those teams were non-conference opponents.

“It helps you out tremendously,” Fernandez said. “That’s what we build upon, and we haven’t shied away from playing the tough teams.”

After being picked to finish dead last in C-USA this season, the Bulls adopted the motto “something to prove.” But even with the school’s first postseason selection in almost 30 years, Fernandez doesn’t believe his team has accomplished that goal yet.

“I still think we have something to prove,” Fernandez said. “We finished .500, earned a postseason berth. We have a good basketball club and the program is moving in the right direction. A lot of people didn’t believe in us.”

And when Selection Sunday rolls around next season, the Bulls are hoping the same disbelief isn’t the case.

“Our goals and expectations are going to be a lot different with the amount of people we have back,” Fernandez said. “The NIT is a great accomplishment for us, but we want to be sitting in front of the TV next year waiting for an NCAA bid.”