Bulls play waiting game

No. 3 Connecticut 74 | USF 54

Six No. 1 seeds fell in conference tournament action over the weekend, but Connecticut wasn’t among them.

The Huskies, ranked No. 3 nationally, defeated USF 74-54 in front of a capacity crowd at the Hartford Civic Center during quarterfinal action in the Big East Tournament.

Even though the Bulls (20-10, 10-8) lost, their 79-64 victory over Seton Hall in opening-round action of the conference tournament may have clinched a second-consecutive NCAA Tournament berth for the Bulls.

“(Seton Hall) was a good win for us, it gives us 20 wins for the year and was a game we needed to win,” coach Jose Fernandez said. “Even (though) we (didn’t) move on in the Big East Tournament, I think we should get an at-large bid.”

Entering Saturday’s contest, the Bulls were considered one of the final four teams to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, while the Pirates were among the first four teams seeking to claim a spot.

“We’re 20-11 with a 32 RPI, so I don’t see how we wouldn’t get in the NCAA Tournament,” Fernandez said. “This year the best we can get, I think, is nine teams that should get a bid in this league. It doesn’t mean that I think there are nine teams in this league deserving of a bid.”

The Bulls’ impressive victory on a neutral court has the team feeling comfortable about being one of likely eight teams from the Big East Conference to make the NCAA Tournament.

“We’ve got a large number of teams who will be on the board for consideration,” Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese said during halftime interview with 860 AM. “The addition of South Florida and Louisville has given (the conference) tremendous depth.”

Last season the Big East Conference sent seven teams into the NCAA Tournament.

But after losing to Connecticut (28-2, 17-0) the Bulls will have to wait until March 12, when the teams are officially announced for the NCAA Tournament.

Sunday, with the game tied at eight, Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma drew a technical foul, the first called during a Bulls game this season. The Huskies responded immediately to his actions with a 15-2 run to take command of the game.

Once again the combination of Tina Charles (18 points) – the Big East Freshman of the Year – and Charde Houston (19 points) were too much for USF’s frontcourt players to handle. The duo combined for 20 rebounds and helped hold the entire Bulls team to just 27 rebounds for the game.

USF forward Nalini Miller, the team’s leading rebounder and shot blocker, saw limited action because of foul trouble, and finished with 12 points and just two rebounds.

“Miller fouling out was definitely crucial. Coach Fernandez told me to be more aggressive and start driving to the hole,” Jessica Dickson said. “I think that’s what I took upon myself to do being that Miller was out.”

Dickson, selected to the Big East All-Conference Team on Friday, scored 18 points against the Huskies, the most in three career appearances against Connecticut. ChiChi Okpaleke recorded her second double-double of the season with 10 points and 10 rebounds.

With losses by nationally ranked No. 1 Duke and No. 2 Tennessee in their conference tournaments, the Huskies will likely claim the No. 1 spot heading into the NCAA Tournament if they can win the Big East Tournament.

Connecticut is 17-0 against conference foes this season and during Big East Tournament play, the Huskies have captured as many championships (11) as they have losses. With the victory, Connecticut is now 49-11 all-time in Big East Tournament play.

Saturday against Seton Hall (18-11, 9-8) in the opening round of the tournament, the Bulls were able to advance behind the hot shooting of Dickson. The senior recorded 27 points on 9-of-17 shooting to lead all scorers.

The Bulls’ forwards were able to take control of the glass after Monique Blake was forced out of the game after only seven minutes of play because of an illness.

Seton Hall severely missed Blake as the forward scored 18 points and grabbed 19 rebounds during their 60-51 loss to the Bulls on Feb. 26.

With their first-ever victory in Big East Conference play the Bulls now just have to wait for Monday’s announcement.

“We just need to get ready and hopefully the next game we will be playing is in the NCAA Tournament,” Fernandez added.