The USF women’s basketball team advanced to the AAC tournament championship game for the fifth time in program history Wednesday following another comeback victory, this time over Tulane 51-47.
For the second time in the tournament, the Bulls (17-3, 14-2 AAC) had to make a double-digit comeback to survive. Yet another cold shooting performance saw USF go down 10 points late in the third quarter. A 23-point blitz in the fourth pushed them over the finish line, avoiding elimination.
It seemed like the Bulls were on their way to a dominant performance early on. Forcing the Green Wave to go 0-of-12 from the field to start the game, USF opened a 10-0 advantage. A lack of production on the offensive end didn’t allow the team to extend its lead.
“We couldn’t have had a better start to the game,” coach Jose Fernandez said. “We got out to a 10-0 start and it’s 10-4 after one quarter. I thought that we defended really well there in that first quarter, but we just weren’t getting any reward for us defending.”
In each of the first three periods, USF shot below 30% from the field. It’s been a constant struggle for the Bulls over the last several weeks, which must be fixed quickly before Thursday night’s tournament finale.
“For us to be successful we can’t continue to shoot under 30%,” Fernandez said. “We’re just escaping with wins right now.”
After its own slow start to the game, Tulane (17-8, 13-7) woke up in the second quarter, shooting 43% from the field and 50% from three-point range. The team took a 23-17 lead into the locker room and eventually stretched it to double digits in the second half.
Being down 10 to the top offense in the conference didn’t faze USF. Instead, the Bulls once again showed the grit that has carried them through this whirlwind of a season.
“The one thing that this group does, they battle through adversity,” Fernandez said. “We’ve had an unbelievable year, we’ve been tested, we haven’t played very well the last two weeks. If we’re the conference champions we got to start playing like it, and they responded.”
Much like the victory over Wichita State on Tuesday, the turning point for USF came on a 5-0 run to end the third quarter to cut a double-digit lead back to a more manageable five-point margin heading into the fourth.
In the fourth, the Bulls shot 46% from the field, their highest percentage of the tournament so far. Keys to the comeback were senior forward Bethy Mununga and sophomore guard Maria Alvarez.
Mununga, who fouled out late in the fourth quarter, finished with just eight points. However, her presence was felt on the glass as she set an AAC tournament single-game record with 18 rebounds, which led to plenty of second-chance opportunities for USF.
Alvarez played 25 minutes coming off the bench, but may have had the most crucial 12 points of the game. Nine of those 12 came in the fourth quarter where she knocked down a three with 1:50 left to give USF its first lead since the second quarter.
It was a lead the Bulls would not surrender thanks to some clutch free throws from junior guards Sydni Harvey and Elisa Pinzan.
Despite Alvarez’s struggles since returning from the hiatus — the sophomore hadn’t made more than three three-pointers since Jan. 13 — Fernandez never lacked faith in his sharpshooter on either end of the floor.
“I’ve been watching Maria since she was a sixth-grader,” Fernandez said. “Her ability to make shots, but you’ve got to want to take shots in the moment. I think the thing she did best tonight, she knew that we needed her to be in the game. I thought she worked extremely hard defensively when they were trying to post her up and iso her. So that’s the one facet of the game that I’m most proud of her.
“I know she made some big shots, but she really buckled down and defended on that other end.”
If a trip to the tournament championship wasn’t motivation enough, Alvarez said trash talk from the Green Wave bench helped spark her competitive fire down the stretch.
“The trash talking they were giving us, it kinda hyped me up too, it’s just all part of the game,” Alvarez said. “They called me a baby at one point on the sideline, and I kind of took offense to that. Had to show them I wasn’t a baby.”
Now Alvarez, Fernandez and the rest of the team look forward to a matchup against UCF on Thursday for the tournament championship. The Knights have the top-ranked defense in the conference, so the Bulls will have to be much better offensively.
One of USF’s two conference losses of the season came at the hands of the Knights.
“We can’t shoot [27%] against UCF, because they do such a good job blocking out,” Fernandez said. “We can’t turn the ball over against UCF or Houston tomorrow because they get in the passing lanes and they score so much off transition.
“Two very different styles and you can’t prepare for one or the other tonight.”
With one more win, USF will again make history by clinching the program’s first-ever conference tournament championship. This prospect has Fernandez admiring the consistency from his program.
“I’m just happy for our student-athletes,” Fernandez said. “I got a really remarkable staff. I have incredible support from our administration and our athletic director Michael Kelly, here at USF.
“It’s a total team effort from our coaches, from our strength coach, our trainer, our managers, our sports information director. This is a really good program from top to bottom.”
The AAC tournament championship game tips off Thursday at 10 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPNU and broadcast on 95.3/620 WDAE/iHeartRadio Bulls Unlimited.