Bulls looking for bounce-back performance with conference title at stake

If the Bulls can win at least one of the next two games against UCF, they will secure the first regular-season conference title in program history. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

With a win Tuesday night against rival UCF, the No. 15 USF women’s basketball team would secure the program’s first ever regular-season title. However, the Bulls will have to do so coming off their worst performance of the season, a 67-49 loss to Houston on Saturday.

Since coming off its monthlong hiatus, coach Jose Fernandez’ team has failed to reach the levels it attained prior to the break, despite winning four of its first five games back. 

A bevy of slow starts offensively since the restart has been costly for the Bulls (14-2, 12-1 AAC). In four of the five games since they’ve resumed play, USF has shot below 40% from the field in the first quarter and in two of those games the Bulls shot less than 30%.

Fernandez knows his team is far from its best at the moment and attributes the team’s lack of offensive flow to the month off. 

“We’re not playing our best basketball,” Fernandez said Tuesday. “[This part of the season], that’s where you want to be playing your best basketball. And off that layoff, yeah we’re 4-1, but we got to play a lot better than we’re playing right now on both ends of the floor.

“I think that we’ve lost is on the offensive end, the flow and the little things where we set screens, reading the defense, screens being set up on different sides of the floor, team switching, those are the kind of things that you’re concentrating on yourself. I think on the offensive end that’s where we lost a lot of that, the flow, the connectivity.”

Despite the team’s recent struggles, and the loss to Houston, Fernandez feels confident in his team’s resiliency and its ability to handle adversity, citing their early-season loss to then No. 4 Baylor, the loss that sparked a program-record 13-game winning streak. 

“Any time you got a little bit of adversity it’s a true test of character,” Fernandez said. “When things are going great everybody feels good, everybody’s happy, there’s no issues. Now it’s how we respond, I thought we responded after Baylor, but we’ve only had one loss [in conference play]. 

Being ranked as one of the best teams in the country has put a target on the back of the Bulls, and their formerly unblemished record in the conference was a statue that teams playing USF desperately wanted to knock off its pedestal.

“We’re taking everyone’s best punch and deservedly so with the attention that we’ve had,” Fernandez said.

The Bulls will likely receive their rival’s best punch Tuesday when UCF (13-2, 11-1 AAC) comes to town with the AAC regular-season title on the line. 

USF will play UCF twice in three days, traveling to Orlando on Thursday for a rematch with the Knights, who sit just half a game back of the Bulls in the conference standings.

If the Bulls win either of the games against UCF, the conference title is theirs, however if USF gets swept, the Knights will walk away as AAC champs.

UCF comes to Tampa with an impressive record, having won eight straight games. The Knights boast the No. 1 scoring defense in the entire country, holding their opponents to just 49.5 points per game. Coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson’s 3-2 defense has become the most vaunted in all of women’s college basketball and will present a unique challenge to a struggling Bulls’ offense in their two matchups during the week.

“They shut down driving lanes, they got two bigs posts inside that can cover the sidelines, cover the corners and cover the blocks, because they’re long and they rebound,” Fernandez said of the UCF defense. “For us, we got to make really good decisions on where we go, we need to get the ball to our shooters and you got to make shots against the 3-2 zone.

“The thing is after they score or we get it off the glass, we gotta go score in transition. We can’t go up against that 3-2 zone every single possession because then the game is going to be in the 40s and 50s and we don’t want that.”

With so much on the line in the two upcoming War on I-4 matchups, Fernandez said it is not lost on his team how big the implications of the games are not only for the regular-season title, but for the looming postseason tournaments as well.

“I think the kids understand the magnitude of these last two games,” Fernandez said. “So they know what’s at stake. This is our eighth year in the American [Athletic Conference] and we’re in the Big East another seven. So, 16 or 20 years here, I had Connecticut, Notre Dame in our league.

“So, we haven’t had an opportunity to be in a position to clinch a regular-season title or a number one seed [in the conference tournament]. So, I think it’s a great opportunity for our program to be in this position.”

The Bulls and the Knights tip off Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPN+ and broadcast on 95.3/620 WDAE/iHeartRadio Bulls Unlimited.