Bulls draw Bearcats in first round

USF’s late-season slide doesn’t mean the Bulls have nothing to play for, team members say.

The Bulls, who lost six of their last eight games, earned the No. 11 seed in the Big East tournament and will open against 14th-seeded Cincinnati (11-17, 4-12) on Friday at 8 p.m. in the XL Center in Hartford, Conn.

“Our goal is to win every game we play,” said coach Jose Fernandez. “(Winning the Big East tournament) is obviously going to be tough with only eight players and a short turnaround between games, but we have fought all season and our girls are prepared.”

USF (15-14, 6-10) defeated the Bearcats 64-47 on Jan. 30 for its first Big East road victory of the season, and the Bulls have won three straight games against Cincinnati, including a victory in the second round of last year’s tournament.

But injuries and suspensions mounted. The Bulls are without second and third leading scorers Janae Stokes and Sequoyah Griffin, who were suspended indefinitely Feb. 13 for violating team rules.

Stokes averaged 12.1 points per game this season and is the team leader with 55 3-pointers. Griffin averaged 9.7 points per game.

USF has also been without starting point guard Jasmine Wynne since she tore her ACL on Jan. 20 against Pittsburgh. The sophomore averaged 8.6 points and a team-leading 4.1 assists per game in 18 contests this season.

If the Bulls win Friday, they will face No. 6 seed Rutgers (17-13, 9-7) on Saturday at 8 p.m.

“What’s great about this tournament is that we’ve played every team, so we know what to expect and know what we need to do to be successful,” said senior Jessica Lawson, who leads the team in both scoring and rebounding. “Every team is familiar with one another, but I feel we have an advantage because our coaches do a tremendous job of game planning for each opponent.”

USF lost to the Rutgers 60-52 on Feb. 6 at the Sun Dome.

“We seem to go through spurts during games when we lose our focus and allow teams to go on big runs,” Lawson said. “We can’t afford to let that happen against teams in this conference.”

The Bulls have to win five games in five days to take the conference title, a tall order for a team with just eight available players, but Fernandez said his players will enjoy the opportunity.

“Our team isn’t built to play a bunch of games without any rest because we’ve seven or eight kids playing hard for 40 minutes,” Fernandez said. “But the girls are excited to play in a conference tournament and are looking forward to playing beyond this weekend in the WNIT tournament.”