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USF loses AAC Championship game, but makes a good case for NCAA Tournament No. 4 seed

Kitija Laksa finished with a game-high 26 points against UConn, with 16 of them coming in the fourth quarter. No other Bull finished in double-digit scoring. ORACLE PHOTO/ CHAVELI GUZMAN

Though it produced its best performance against No. 1 UConn (32-0) since 2015, USF fell to the Huskies in the AAC Championship game for the fourth year in a row Tuesday.

Falling 70-54 in front of 7,501 fans at Mohegan Sun Arena, Kitija Laksa’s 26 points weren’t enough for the Bulls (26-7) to bring home a trophy, but USF's performance may have been good enough for USF to host NCAA Tournament games.

“We deserve to be a host and one of the top four seeds and continue to play basketball in the first two rounds in Tampa,” coach Jose Fernandez said. “I think we've done our part.”

The goal entering the 2017-18 season was to earn a top four seed in the NCAA Tournament, Fernandez said in November. By being a four-seed or better, the Sun Dome would host two NCAA Tournament first-round games and one second.

Entering its game against UConn, ESPN.com women’s basketball expert Charlie Creme had the Bulls as a No. 5 seed, playing in the Kansas City region. After the 16-point loss to UConn, one in which the Huskies played their starters throughout the game, Fernandez said he believes the Bulls have proven they’re worthy of a top-four seed.

“There's a reason why (UConn’s) undefeated and who they are, but I think we showed everybody in the country how good we are as well and how well we're playing right now,” Fernandez said. “We scheduled in the non-conference and I think we are playing our best basketball right now.”

The Bulls' 16-point loss Tuesday was the smallest margin of defeat against UConn since a 14-point regular-season loss on March 9, 2015.

The current No. 4 seeds for the Tournament, according to Creme’s projections, are N.C. State, Stanford, Georgia and Texas A&M. Of those four teams, only Stanford made it to its conference championship game, where it fell to No. 6 Oregon 77-57.

Of the Bulls’ seven losses in 2017-18, three have come against UConn and one against No. 5 Notre Dame. Its wins over ranked opponents include a 61-55 triumph over No. 24 LSU on Nov. 10 and an 84-65 win over No. 10 Ohio State on Feb. 11.

In conference play, the Bulls dropped only one non-UConn game — winning 15 conference games, which includes the AAC Tournament, by an average 20.4 points per win.

“I think our program gets judged on the three times we play Connecticut and not enough on the body of work that we did in November and December,” Fernandez said. “Getting to this championship game is tough and we have done it four straight years.”

The last four seasons, USF has entered the NCAA Tournament as a No. 6 seed twice, a No. 11 seed last year and didn’t qualify in 2014.

The Bulls will find out their tourney-seeding destiny for 2018 in the Selection Show, which will be aired live at 7 p.m. on March 12. The show can be seen on ESPN.