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Women play in Hartford

The South Florida women’s basketball team will play Syracuse in Hartford, Conn., in the first round of the Big East Tournament on Saturday after winning two must-win games to enter it.

The trip through the Big East Tournament will only get tougher for the Bulls, as one of their two seniors – forward ChiChi Okpaleke – will sit out with a sprained medial collateral ligament in her knee.

Okpaleke injured her knee in the second half of the season finale against Marquette on March 3. That became the last game of her college career because she will be out for the season, which means the Bulls lose size and speed.

“Well, we lost ChiChi Okpaleke and we need her,” USF coach Jose Fernandez said. “So that’s going to hurt.”

The chance to play in the tournament seemed unlikely for the Bulls after they lost consecutive games to Georgetown and Notre Dame. USF and Georgetown played for the 12th spot in the conference – an important game because the tournament only accepts the top 12 teams. USF fell to 13th, then Notre Dame beat the Bulls 92-49.

“Against Notre Dame, our team got beat pretty bad. We told our team we’re never going to stop working,” Fernandez said.

Fernandez said his team was also playing for the future after the Notre Dame game. “We got four starters on our team this year that, last year, came off the bench.”

Those young players stepped their game up to end the season, playing better offense and defense. They beat Pittsburgh 65-64, and Marquette 61-56. It was the only time USF beat consecutive Big East teams this year.

“Look at both of those teams (we beat), and how we shot the ball,” Fernandez said. “We shot the ball fairly well. I think we did a much better job on defense.”

The Bulls are the 11 seed and Syracuse is the 6 seed. The Bulls jumped to the 11th spot because they ended in a tie with Villanova. The Bulls beat Villanova 77-66 Feb. 19, giving USF the tiebreaker, making Villanova the 12 seed.