On a day full of emotion and reflection, the USF women’s basketball team found themselves battling not only a talented conference foe, but their own feelings entering the final regular season home game for the class of 2016.
Despite several shed tears and countless hugs during Saturday’s pregame festivities, the Bulls were able to compose themselves before their matinee tip-off to eventually pull away from the Temple Owls in a 76-62 win on senior day.
“They were all crying in the locker room before we started,” coach Jose Fernandez said. “That just goes to show you how passionate they are. All good teams start with culture. You win in the locker room first.”
After a pregame ceremony that concluded with senior guard Courtney Williams singing the national anthem, the Bulls (21-7, 14-3) got off to an uncharacteristically slow start against a hungry Temple team fighting for an NCAA berth.
Temple (18-10, 12-5) came out the aggressor, looking to solidify its NCAA tournament chances with a victory over a team in USF that has been ranked in the Top 25 for nearly the entire season.
The Owls controlled the tempo for the majority of the games’ first ten minutes, controlling the Bulls’ normally sharp-shooting backcourt and forcing USF to miss its first four 3-point attempts.
But that all changed after the Bulls took the lead for the first time with a second left in the first quarter from a long three from Williams, claiming a 21-18 lead.
From there, the USF momentum, prompted from a passionate afternoon, seemed to be too much for the Owls to overcome.
In addition to the clutch shot that ended the frame, Williams shined in front of about 40 family members and friends who traveled down from her native Folkston, Ga., for what was likely to be her final game at the Sun Dome. Williams finished the game with 13 points, 7 rebounds, and 8 assists.
“We were so excited to be playing in front of our family and friends and to have student section and the regulars come out; it was amazing,” Williams said postgame. “It was great, honestly. It was great.”
The Owls tried everything they could to slow down the Bulls in the second half, including trying to intimidate Williams and USF, physically.
A minute into the fourth quarter, Williams and Temple sophomore guard Tanaya Atkinson got into a heated altercation, prompting teammates to separate the players.
Williams, along with seniors Shalethia Stringfield and Alisia Jenkins, seemed intent on putting on one more show for the fans and supporters who have been there to see them compete and grow for the last four years.
Stringfield’s 20 points, to go along with Jenkins’ 18 points and 16 boards helped the Bulls clinch the second overall seed in next week’s AAC tournament.
“I mean, it is a great feeling to score a career high, but it’s a team effort,” Stringfield said. “Without them, I’d never be able to score that much.”
That unselfish, team-first belief echoed by Stringfield and a senior class that may go down as one of the best in program history, is what Fernandez believes has made these Bulls as successful as they have been.
“When you’re a senior, and your career is coming to an end, there are not many more opportunities that you’re going to have to play,” said Fernandez of his seniors. “You want to finish your career with no regrets and leaving it all on the floor. I think they did that tonight.”
The Bulls finish the regular season with a highly anticipated return match with No. 1 UConn Monday evening in Storrs, Conn., before beginning AAC tournament play next weekend.