Bulls avoid upset in AAC tournament opener with narrow win

Junior guard Sydni Harvey (above) led the Bulls in scoring Tuesday as she dropped 14 points in the win over Wichita State. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

The USF women’s basketball team just barely avoided being the first top overall seed to ever lose in the AAC tournament, coming from behind to beat the No. 9 seeded Wichita State Shockers 48-44 in the quarterfinals

The Bulls would’ve been the first No. 1 seed ever to not win the conference tournament in the seven seasons it’s been played. Former AAC member UConn won every conference tournament as the top seed.

Shooting woes continued for USF on Tuesday as a season-worst shooting performance in the first half saw the Shockers open an 11-point advantage with 2:17 remaining in the second quarter. 

Saying the Bulls were cold would be an understatement. USF made just 20% of its field-goal attempts in the first half — a season low. In the end, the Bulls wound up shooting 24% for the game.

The well-balanced offense that worked so well for much of the season was faltering as the team struggled to find offensive production anywhere on the floor. Coach Jose Fernandez’s players had just four points in the paint in the opening 20 minutes and missed 11 of their 15 three-point attempts. 

“Right now it’s very uncharacteristic with how poorly we’re shooting the basketball,” Fernandez said after the game.

Slow starts have been a trend for the Bulls ever since they returned from their midseason hiatus. Most recently, USF’s loss to UCF in the final game of the regular season included a 3-of-15 performance in the first quarter.

A team that was once averaging a conference-leading 71 points per game, has fallen to third behind Tulane and Houston, averaging 67 points per game. Although a top-three finish offensively is still respectable, Fernandez knows they aren’t anywhere near where they used to be on that end of the floor.

“We didn’t have a lot of close games in those first 11, outside the Baylor and Mississippi State game,” Fernandez said. “Now coming off that layoff that’s what we’ve seen. We’ve missed a lot of our flow and our continuity and everything like that.

“But, you know what, no one’s going to feel sorry for you and you don’t make excuses. We just got to continue to defend, rebound, take care of the ball and hopefully offensively we play a lot better.”

A 5-0 run to end the half helped USF cut the deficit to a much more manageable five points. After the break, they managed to outscore the Shockers 17-10 in the third quarter, even taking their first lead of the game with a 1:38 remaining in the quarter off a three-pointer by sophomore guard Maria Alvarez.

The Bulls surrendered the lead once in the fourth quarter with 9:32 remaining, but immediately got it back on the next possession via a layup from sophomore guard Elena Tsineke. With several key free throws by junior guard Sydni Harvey and senior forward Bethy Mununga along with holding Wichita to 4-of-12 shooting from the field in the final quarter, USF was able to lock up the victory down the stretch.

Despite poor shooting in the opening half, the Bulls were able to maintain their composure in the game’s crucial moments. The leaders on the squad made sure to encourage the rest of the team before heading into the second half, according to Harvey.

“Elisa [Pinzan] and Bethy and Shae [Leverett], they all brought us together just saying ‘We got this, we just got to get stops,’” Harvey said. “I mean they really kept a level head and just helped everybody out not to get too frustrated or stressed.”

Harvey ended up leading the Bulls with 14 points to go along with seven rebounds and three assists. She was joined in double digits by Tsineke who finished with 12. 

Harvey shot just 3-of-12 from the field but knocked down seven of her 10 free throws, two of which came in the closing moments of the fourth quarter to seal the game. Because of her struggles from the field, she knew the next best thing she could do was get to the line where she has shot 74% on the season, fourth-best in the conference.

“My shot wasn’t falling so I was like ‘I need to get to the basket,’” Harvey said. “Normally if you could get a couple free throws down, then shots start to fall so that was just my mentality.”

A bright spot for the USF on Tuesday was its defense on Wichita’s Asia Strong, who is the conference’s fourth-leading scorer at 16 points per game. Strong was held to four points on 2-of-10 shooting from the field and 0-of-4 from three. 

Fernandez and the Bulls are hoping the defense carries into Wednesday’s semifinal matchup against Tulane, which has the conference’s top scoring offense at 69 points per game. The Green Wave easily handled Temple 83-73 on Tuesday and had four players in double digits led by senior forward Krystal Freeman who had 18 points and four rebounds. 

The Bulls, who are 2-0 against Tulane on the season, will also have to leave their offensive struggles behind them if they want to keep up with coach Lisa Stockton’s impressive star-studded offense. Fernandez knows another performance like the one against Wichita will not get the job done in the next round.

“They got different guys in [Jerkaila] Jordan, who’s had a really special year,” Fernandez said. “Out on the perimeter they got Dynah Jones, [Arsula] Clark, [Salma] Bates, [Sierra] Cheatham played well today, Krystal Freeman who’s been a staple of their program.

“I know [Stockton’s] going to get them ready to play and if we shoot 24, 25% against those guys it’s not going to be a pretty basketball game.”

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