Last week, sophomore guard Courtney Williams was rushed by her teammates on the court after hitting a game-winning 3-pointer against Mississippi State to earn a home game against Rutgers for the WNIT (Women’s National Invitation Tournament) semifinals.
After she intentionally placed her fifth foul on Rutgers with 15 seconds left, the Bulls trailed 60-52 to the Scarlet Knights on Wednesday night. She hugged coach Jose Fernandez and slowly walked down the bench — Williams fouled out.
Her head was down as fellow teammates gave her high fives one-by-one. They knew their WNIT championship hopes were coming to an end.
“I never won a championship. I’ve never cut a net down,” Fernandez said he recalled Williams telling him in the past. “So to have that in your leading scorer, that hurts.”
Seniors Akila McDonald and Inga Orekhova followed after Williams to the bench when Rutgers scored two more points to win the game, 62-52. As fans gave them a standing ovation, McDonald was teary-eyed.
“Only two teams finish with a win, that’s the NCAA Tournament champion and the WNIT champion,” Fernandez said. “Tonight just wasn’t our night.“
The Bulls started the WNIT “angry” as a response to being among the first four teams not selected to the NCAA Tournament. Fernandez initially told his team after Selection Monday to take that anger out on the tournament opponents.
On Wednesday, he said it wouldn’t have made a difference to the selection committee whether or not they won the WNIT tournament.
“What we have to do next year is not put it in the committee’s hands,” Fernandez said. “That’s by getting good NCAA tournament quality wins in the non-conference, and doing a great job in league play.”
Scarlet Knights head coach C. Vivian Stringer exchanged a hug and kind words with Fernandez as she departed the media room, each saying both teams were good enough to make the NCAA Tournament.
“(The NCAA Tournament selection process) was a joke anyway,” Stringer said. “(Fernandez) knows it and I know it. Both of these teams deserve to be in the NCAA tournament, so I’m not buying anything that anyone has to say. Right now, we can’t do anything about it.”
Even though USF didn’t make it to the championship game, Fernandez said he was still proud of his team and how they handled themselves.
“I think it taught our kids that your not going to get everything you want,” Fernandez said. “I think a lot of different teams would have responded a different way. They would have come out against North Carolina A&T and Stetson and not have wanted to play. This team didn’t do that.”
Rebounding was a point of focus heading into a game, a battle that McDonald lost.
The rebounding margin was won by Rutgers, who grabbed nine more balls off the basket. McDonald finished with three while Rachel Hollivay, the 6-foot-4 Rutgers center, took control of the paint. Her 12 points and 8 blocks helped the team out-score USF in the paint 36-30.
“Our guards were crashing. Post players were blocking out,” McDonald said. “We just tried to make it a point to rebound, but I guess we just came up short.”
As the Bulls somberly joined fans one last time this season in the tradition of displaying the Bulls hand sign during the playing of the Alma Mater, Rutgers celebrated on the other side of the student section for punching their ticket to the WNIT finals.
But Fernandez made his own plans for his team. He took the microphone after the Alma Mater and publicly made a goal in front of 1,781 fans and the Rutgers basketball team.
“Bulls, we need you,” he announced. “We’ll be back. We’ll be back in the NCAA tournament next year.”
McDonald later said she expects the same from her teammates that she will now leave behind.
“I just know for a fact — because I know my teammates — I know they are going to get to the NCAA tournament,” she said.