Bulls capture first-ever regular-season conference title

This year’s Senior Night was a little more meaningful than expected for seniors Shae Leverett and Bethy Mununga, as the Bulls won their first-ever regular-season conference title. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

The USF women’s basketball program first began play in 1972. After 48 seasons, six conferences, five head coaches and one WNIT championship, the Bulls have finally captured their first-ever regular-season conference title Tuesday night with a thrilling 65-62 win over rival UCF.

Following their worst offensive performance of the season against Houston on Feb. 27, the No. 15 Bulls (15-2, 13-1 AAC) came out of the gate aggressive on both ends of the floor against the Knights, knowing exactly what was at stake. 

If the Bulls lost Tuesday, then Thursday’s rematch against UCF (13-3, 11-2 AAC)  in Orlando would be do-or-die for the regular-season conference title. It never came to that, however, as USF clinched the title on its home floor. 

For the USF players and coaches, it was a personal mission to take care of business in front of their fans at the Yuengling Center.

“It’s great for our kids to finish off this season,” coach Jose Fernandez said. “We’re not going to play in the [Yuengling Center] again this year, until next season, next November, this is the last home game. It’s really good to win it on your home floor.”

A driving factor for this year’s squad was honoring all of the great USF women’s basketball teams and players of the past who were unable to reach these heights.

“We were also thinking that before us, a lot of great players were here, but they couldn’t do what we did today,” senior Bethy Mununga said. “So that was kind of a motivation too, like ‘OK let’s make history today,’ and we did it.”

The path to making history seemed like it would be simple early on. In the first half, USF shot 45% from the field and 45% from three-point range while holding the Knights to below 25% from the field, including a five-point first quarter.

Elena Tsineke led the surge for the Bulls in the opening 20 minutes scoring 10 points on 50% shooting.

The game took a turn early in the second half as the Knights started chipping away at the Bulls’ 17-point halftime lead, eventually cutting it to nine points with 33 seconds to go in the quarter.

The fourth quarter proved to be even more precarious than the third as the Knights trailed by single digits for much of the quarter, getting within one point in the final seconds of the game. 

However, whenever things seemed to be slipping away late, Fernandez turned to his leaders to close it out down the stretch. Junior guard Elisa Pinzan took over in the closing minutes, responding to every UCF basket with a big play of her own.

Pinzan made the play of the game with 1:59 remaining. After UCF cut the lead to seven, she pulled up and hit her third 3-pointer of the game, stretching the lead back to double digits and effectively putting the game out of reach. 

Even when UCF cut the lead to one with one second remaining following an Alisha Lewis three, Pinzan was the one to knock down a pair of free throws to ice it. 

Despite the pressure of a championship atmosphere, Pinzan felt confident heading to the stripe with the game on the line.

“When I was shooting free throws I was pretty confident with myself,” Pinzan said. “We shoot 50 free throws every day, so I was like ‘just think about a normal practice when you shoot free throws,’ so that’s what I did.”

Pinzan would end up leading the Bulls with 18 points and would be joined in double digits by Mununga who finished with another double-double (11 and 13) and Tsineke (12). 

To make things even sweeter, USF was able to celebrate their title on Senior Night as they celebrated Mununga and senior center Shae Leverett whom Fernandez deems as invaluable pieces of the team. Both players have an extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19 and Fernandez wouldn’t mind at all if they used it.

“I want the best for Shae and Bethy,” Fernandez said. “If the best is for them to continue to move on and grow as people and as basketball players to be successful after USF, we’re going to support them.” 

“If the best thing for them is to come back, we’re going to be really, really good. We got a really, really good schedule planned nonconference-wise for next year. It’d be nice to chase it back-to-back, and going into the next season, if this team stays intact, when we come back we could be preseason top 10 in the country.”

Fernandez also made sure to put into context the monumental achievement of this year’s team. Following decades of disappointments and close calls, he knows the team has cemented their legacy at USF after Tuesday’s win.

“This team will go down in the history of USF Athletics and our basketball program,” Fernandez said.