Women’s basketball downs UCF, will face UConn in AAC Championship on Tuesday

Maria Jespersen and Kitija Laksa had 12 and 20 points respectively for USF against the Knights on Monday afternoon.

Another season, another AAC title game.

Second-seeded USF (25-6) defeated third-seeded UCF (21-9) 74-59 in an AAC semi-final matchup Monday afternoon at Mohegan Sun Arena, advancing the Bulls to their fourth consecutive AAC Title game. Only six Bulls played in the win with Laura Ferreira, Maria Jespersen, Kitija Laksa and Laia Flores all playing the game’s entire 40 minutes.

Alyssa Radar (23 minutes, 10 points) and Tamara Henshaw (17 minutes, 11 points) were the other two Bulls to play, subbing for each other throughout, with both forwards finishing in double-digit scoring and combining for 11 rebounds.

“I thought Radar and Henshaw did a great job. They finished around the rim, they rebounded,” coach Jose Fernandez said. “I thought it all started with how we took care of the basketball and got it going where we wanted to against (UCF’s) zone.”

Joining Radar and Henshaw in double-digit scoring was Laksa (20 points), Ferreira (17) and Jespersen (12). Though she only scored four points, point guard Flores dished out seven assists and had four steals.

The win sets USF up for a championship game against undefeated UConn (32-0), which is both the No. 1 ranked team in the nation, as well as the tournament’s No. 1 seed. Tipoff is scheduled for Tuesday at 5 p.m. and will be aired on ESPN2.

“This is something we talk about all year long,” Fernandez said. “Having an opportunity to have a chance to play for a conference championship. Now this is four years straight that we’re doing that. I look forward to seeing Connecticut again tomorrow.”

The past three seasons, USF has played and lost to UConn in the AAC Tournament’s final. USF has lost every regular-season game against the Huskies, too, falling 100-49 and 82-53 in its two games in 2018.

In their Feb. 26 contest at UConn, the Bulls improved exponentially by quarter, but were still outscored each time. After one period of play, the Bulls were outscored 29-12. In the second period, they were outscored by seven. In the third and fourth quarters, USF was outscored by only a combined five points.

“I thought we competed and played them a lot better when we played them up in Storrs (Connecticut),” Fernandez said. “What hurt us were those final 4:30 of the first quarter. They were huge because we couldn’t get back into the game. Second, third and fourth quarter is almost like it was a two, three-point differential each quarter.”

Though she’s never beaten the Huskies in eight attempts in her career at USF, Laksa enjoys playing the nation’s best and is looking forward to the championship game.

“It’s a great opportunity to play the best team in the country three times a year,” Laksa said. “It's a privilege I think and we’re excited. We trust the coaching staff that they’re going to game plan and we’ll be ready for tomorrow.”

Despite UConn playing and defeating Cincinnati 75-21 in the same arena immediately after the Bulls won, Fernandez’s night-before game plan for his team did not include watching UConn-Cincy.

“We’re going back to the hotel,” Fernandez said. “They’ve seen and they’re very, very familiar with Connecticut. We’re going to go back, rest up, have a nice team meal, watch some film before we go to bed and we’ll have shoot around tomorrow to get ready. They don’t need to watch them anymore before tomorrow, they’re on TV all the time.”