The USF women’s basketball team has never made it past the second round of the NCAA tournament, but that has a chance to change Tuesday as the Bulls will take on the No. 1 seed in the Mercado Region, NC State, in the Round of 32.
USF has made it to the Round of 32 three times before but has fallen to a higher seed each of those times, including a heartbreaking 82-78 overtime loss in 2013 to then-No. 2 California.
Coach Jose Fernandez remembered specific details about a few of those losses in spite of some being a number of years ago.
“This is our seventh trip here and we’ve never been to the second weekend, we’ve been close,” Fernandez said after his team’s win over Washington State on Sunday. “I remember Courtney Williams’ senior year we got beat by UCLA in that final minute. That group with Andrea Smith, the Smith sisters and [Inga] Orekhova … we had three draft picks on that team, we get beat by [California] in overtime and [California] goes to the Final Four.
“The last two trips in the NCAA tournament we lost to Buffalo, Buffalo beats us and Florida State. In our previous trip, Missouri, Sophie Cunningham’s senior year, we’re up one and they tipped it in with what I believe was 1.2 [seconds left] to beat us.”
To avoid adding to that list of heartbreaks, it’s going to take, as Fernandez put it, a special effort from the Bulls.
“Tomorrow we got to be special in all facets,” he said in a press conference Monday afternoon. “We’ve got to take care of it, we’ve got to defend, we’ve got to be solid on the glass like we have been solid all year, but you’ve got to score points to have an opportunity to beat those guys.
“We’ve got to shoot a really, really good number, we’ve got to get to the free-throw line, we’ve got to be special in transition and we’ve got to execute in the halfcourt.”
NC State averages 77.4 points per game, while only allowing 61.4 to opponents, a 16-point differential. The Bulls, however, have the 12th-ranked defense in the nation, as they allow opponents to score an average of 54.3 points per game.
The Wolfpack employ a lineup with size, headlined by junior center Elissa Cunane who stands 6-feet-5-inches and scores a team-high 16.5 points per game.
The tallest players in the rotation for the Bulls are junior center Beatriz Jordao who is 6-feet-3-inches, and senior starting center Shae Leverett who is 6-feet-2-inches.
In order to neutralize and contain NC State’s height, Fernandez said it’s going to require a sound effort on defensive coverages.
“We’re going to have to be solid on our coverages and how we’re going to defend their fours and fives,” Fernandez said. “They’ve also got big guards, there’s nobody really in our league that you can compare them to. We’re going to be tested like we were tested against Baylor and Mississippi State [with] those type of frontline guys.”
In addition to their bigger players, the Wolfpack also have impressive guards that can shoot the three efficiently, including graduate student Raina Perez who transferred to NC State from Cal State Fullerton in summer 2020.
“They’re really, really good. The reason why they’re a No. 1 seed and they’ve been in the top five of the country all year [is because] they’ve got a really good balance,” Fernandez said. “I think the transfer for them, Raina Perez, has done a great job coming in at that point guard spot and getting the ball where it needs to get to and settling them down.”
Perez averages 9.0 points and 4.9 assists per game on the season so far.
While NC State will certainly be one of, if not the hardest test the Bulls have had all season, Fernandez said at this point every team left in the tournament is going to be talented.
“When there’s 32 teams left, regardless of seeding, even in your opening-round game, there’s no bad basketball teams,” Fernandez said. “If we wanted to get to where we wanted to get to, and that’s that second weekend, essentially you had to beat a 1-4 [seed].”
Ultimately, Fernandez said he and his team are happy to be fortunate enough to still be playing this deep into the season, and still be competing for a spot in the Sweet 16.
“This is the best time of year, we’re happy we’re here, and we’re really excited to still be playing,” Fernandez said. “It’s a great opportunity to be one game away from the next phase in this tournament.”
USF and NC State will tip off Tuesday at 3 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPN2 and broadcast on 95.3/620 WDAE/iHeartRadio Bulls Unlimited.