Through its first 11 games of the season, No. 14 USF women’s basketball (10-1, 7-0 AAC) has exceeded the lofty expectations that pundits and fans had for them when the Bulls were selected as the preseason favorite to win the AAC.
USF has yet to lose a conference game, boasting a 7-0 record, and has won nine consecutive games dating back to Dec. 5.
Up to the midpoint of the season, USF has proven itself to be not only one of the top programs in the country, but one of the teams to look out for come tournament time.
With that being said, here is a midseason report card with some of the games and players that have stuck out halfway through the year.
Midseason game of the year
USF beats No. 6 Mississippi State 67-63 (Dec. 5)
Four days after losing a close battle with No. 4 Baylor, USF bounced back and got its signature win of the season by taking down one of the premier programs in the country in Mississippi State.
The significance of this game goes beyond this season. It was the Bulls’ first victory against a top-10 team in program history.
Early on, a win did not seem probable as the Bulls fell into a 19-11 hole.
However, the Bulls were able to take the lead heading into halftime. After a back-and-forth second half, the teams were locked at 60 at the end of regulation.
In the five minutes of overtime, USF hunkered down on defense allowing just three points and forced three of the Bulldogs’ 21 turnovers. After a pair of free throws from junior guard Elisa Pinzan to ice the game with five seconds remaining, USF went on to win 67-63.
Midseason heartbreak of the year
USF loses to No. 4 Baylor 67-62 (Dec. 1)
Going up against a reigning national champion is a daunting task for any team. The Bulls, however, showed no signs of fear as they went to toe to toe with the Baylor Bears in their second game of the season.
In the opening half, USF looked like the superior team, answering every Lady Bears’ bucket with one of their own while holding Baylor’s best player, NaLyssa Smith, to just two points.
Despite its best efforts in the second half and 18 points off the bench from sophomore guard Maria Alvarez, USF had a tough time limiting Baylor on the offensive end of the floor.
Although the Lady Bears were ice cold from beyond the arc, going 0-of-11 from three, Baylor got whatever it wanted down low. The Bulls allowed a season-high 44 points in the paint, and Baylor’s center Queen Egbo had a field day in the post going for a double-double with 25 points and 11 rebounds.
USF fought to the final buzzer, ultimately losing by five points to the champs. However, this defeat seems to be the impetus for the Bulls’ current run of form as they haven’t lost a game since.
Surprise player of the year
Anyone who watched sophomore guard Maria Alvarez play last season wouldn’t be at all surprised by her play thus far. In the 15 games before her season-ending knee injury, Alvarez proved to be one of the team’s most electric scorers.
What has been impressive about Alvarez’s performance this season is how drastically she’s improved fresh off that injury.
Alvarez has solidified herself as the AAC’s premier sharpshooter. She currently leads the league in three-point percentage by a wide margin. She’s knocked down 45% of her triples this season, four percentage points higher than the next best shooter.
The Bulls have had the distinct advantage of being able to bring Alvarez off the bench, where she has been a microwave scorer, pouring in a lot of points in a short period of time.
Alvarez is a unique player and scorer who will play a big role in helping the Bulls achieve their lofty goals.
USF has been the AAC’s top offensive team this season averaging a league-leading 71.6 point per game. That offensive production would not be possible without the contribution of junior guard Elisa Pinzan, who has become the architect of the offense.
Pinzan has done whatever her team and coach Jose Fernandez have asked. Her veteran leadership has been a calming presence on both ends of the floor.
While her 9.5 points per game seem modest, that statistic does not tell the full story of Pinzan’s impact on the team.
Whenever the Bulls need a big bucket at a crucial moment in the game, Pinzan is always there to either knock down the shot or find an open teammate to do the same. She leads the AAC in assists per game at 7.2.
Selfless as she is, Pinzan won’t hesitate to be the primary scorer if that’s what her team needs her to do. In Wednesday’s win against Tulane, Pinzan took charge and dropped 22.
Pinzan has been the engine for the Bulls this season, and the team will need her play to continue if they want to be contenders.
Over the next several weeks, the Bulls will look to continue their dominance over the rest of the AAC.
Despite having played nearly flawless basketball for the first few weeks of the season, the Bulls have yet to face their two biggest challenges, Temple and UCF.
The Owls and Knights, respectively, are currently tied for second place in the conference at 4-1 and are waiting for the chance to knock USF off its perch.
The Bulls will welcome Temple to the Yuengling Center on Jan. 27 and face UCF on the road Feb. 7. If the Bulls pass those two tests, they could potentially be on their way to a perfect conference season.
USF will look to carry all of their current momentum into March as they eye their first-ever AAC title and maybe even more.