Fresh off capturing its first-ever regular-season title, the USF women’s basketball team reached another historic milestone Thursday night, winning the program’s first AAC tournament championship after defeating UCF 64-54 in Fort Worth, Texas.
“I could not have been prouder of these guys,” coach Jose Fernandez said in a press conference following the game. “We didn’t play our best basketball the first two days [of the tournament, but today] I thought we set the tone early by the way we got out and scored in transition, we made extra passes and we made shots.
“I couldn’t be prouder of our kids and their resiliency.”
The Bulls (18-3, 12-2 AAC) opened a big lead in the first half, largely due to the prolific shooting of sophomore guard Sydni Harvey who hit 5-of-6 shots from three-point range in the opening 20 minutes. Not only did Harvey have a great game shooting the basketball, she made her presence known on the defensive end.
“Three games [this season] she’s had to defend Courtajia Sanders, I think she’s done a really, really good job on that kid. Sanders had a much better second half [today], but Sydni set the tone … she made shots,” Fernandez said.
“Sydni is a kid, we got so many talented players on our team, Sydni doesn’t get the attention she deserves. She can create off the bounce, Sydni really defends, we can put her on a shooter, we can put her on a driver, and I’m just really happy for her.”
Despite the 37-19 lead the team carried into the half, the course of the game shifted when UCF (16-4, 11-2 AAC) turned up the pressure defensively and forced the Bulls into some turnovers and broken offensive possessions.
Midway through the third quarter, the Bulls were up 24 points and looked poised to coast to the victory. That was, however, before a 20-2 run from the Knights turned the game on its head and USF’s once comfortable lead was a mere six points with 6:12 remaining.
“We were just getting sped up,” Fernandez said. “We were picking up our dribble in bad places … But we found a way and did enough, we took care of it and made our free throws down the stretch.”
The Bulls eventually stopped the bleeding and went on a mini 4-0 run themselves, a run that kept the Knights at bay for the rest of the game.
Senior forward Bethy Mununga only scored two points, but she left her impact on the game through her work on the glass. Mununga pulled in 16 rebounds and tallied a total of 49 throughout the three games the Bulls played in the tournament.
Those 49 boards shattered the previous record for most rebounds in a single conference tournament, which was 39 accomplished by former UConn Husky Napheesa Collier in 2019. Mununga was also named to the All-Tournament team for her play.
“That’s what she does, that’s what she does,” Fernandez said of Mununga. “We go as those frontline guys go, and when they go and defend and rebound, we play well.”
Another frontline player that made a crucial contribution to the win was junior center Beatriz Jordao who came into the game for senior center Shae Leverett. Jordao had two blocks and played quality defense in the 12 minutes she was on the floor.
“She didn’t score, but I thought she defended, she threw her body around. She was high side, low side, she affected things, so I couldn’t be happier for her,” Fernandez said.
Junior guard Elisa Pinzan played a large role in the scoring output for the Bulls, as she registered 15 points and logged four assists.
Sophomore guard Elena Tsineke led all scorers with 23 points, and she made some clutch plays to seal the game in the second half. Tsineke also made the All-Tournament team.
Now, USF’s eyes turn toward Selection Monday to find out where it is seeded in the NCAA tournament and who it will play in the first round.
This is the seventh time in program history the Bulls have made the tournament, but the first time they are coming off a conference title.
“Whatever happens on [Selection Monday], guess what, this tournament is on a neutral floor. It’s wide open,” Fernandez said. “[We are] looking forward to finding out who we play, and whoever that is, we’ll get to work on them.”
Harvey, who won the award for the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player and joined Mununga and Tsineke on the All-Tournament team, said the Bulls will take a break over the next couple of days before getting back to work.
“I think the next few days we get off, and then when we get back on that court, we can still enjoy this win but I think it’s on to the next,” Harvey said. “We still have more goals to accomplish, we got to be locked in when we start practicing again.”
The Bulls will find out their seed in the selection show, which will take place March 15 at 7 p.m. on ESPN.