Despite leading 36-35 at halftime, the USF women’s basketball team lost 79-67 to the No. 1 seed in the Mercado Region, NC State, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Tuesday.
Coach Jose Fernandez looked back on the season and commended his team for everything it accomplished, including the program’s first-ever regular-season AAC title as well as a conference tournament championship.
“I couldn’t be prouder of this group,” Fernandez said in the postgame press conference. “A lot of this is new for them because [senior center Shae Leverett] is the only one that’s experienced an NCAA Tournament [before].
“This has been a tough year for all student-athletes all around the country, so for us to have the type of year that we had, winning a regular-season title, a conference championship and being 20 minutes [away] from the Sweet 16, I’m proud to be their coach.”
The ball was bouncing in USF’s favor for much of the first half, as the Bulls carried a one-point lead into halftime largely due to an efficient 42.9% shooting percentage from three-point range in the game’s opening 20 minutes. Sophomore guard Elena Tsineke hit three of those shots from deep as she had 11 points at the half.
When the teams came out to open the second half, the momentum quickly swung toward NC State. The Wolfpack outscored the Bulls 24-11 in the third quarter and the hot-shooting USF squad that existed in the first half was now 1-of-7 from three-point land in the third quarter.
Fernandez, however, did not blame the negative run on the shooting woes. He said the defensive side of the ball is what hurt his team most.
“I thought we got good looks [in the third quarter, but] the ball didn’t go in the basket … I was more disappointed on the defensive end,” Fernandez said. “We knew they were going to make a run, they’re a good team.
“We had to take two timeouts and a media [timeout] during that stretch, that’s what hurt us. We gave up a layup, we gave up a put-back, we gave a transition three, they’re a good basketball team. They’ve only lost two games for a reason and one of them was without their big kid.”
The “big kid” Fernandez referred to was 6-foot-5-inch junior center Elissa Cunane of NC State who had nine second-half points. Likely her biggest impact on the game, however, was getting the Bulls’ frontline players in foul trouble.
Senior forward Bethy Mununga fouled out with approximately three minutes left in the third quarter, and Leverett also ran into foul trouble. She fouled out in the fourth quarter.
“The foul trouble really, really hurt us … we just fouled too much,” Fernandez said. “That’s what really, really hurt us.”
Junior center Beatriz Jordao and sophomore wing Cristina Bermejo also had three fouls apiece.
The Bulls cut the Wolfpack’s lead to eight points with 3:41 left to play in the fourth quarter, but that was as close as they would get as NC State quickly rattled off a 5-0 run to effectively end the game.
Looking forward, Leverett and Mununga are the only two seniors on the team, but they both have an opportunity to come back for one more year with USF due to the NCAA ruling that this season wouldn’t count against a student-athlete’s eligibility.
Fernandez said he hasn’t spoken to either player about their future plans, but will eventually do so.
“That’s something that we’ll talk about when we get back to Tampa,” Fernandez said. “I think right now the most important thing [is] everybody in that locker room is hurting right now because of the amount of time, and blood, sweat, tears that they’ve invested all season long.
“If they choose to come back, we’ll welcome them with open arms. I’m sure right now when we get back everyone needs some time off and we’ll have that conversation when need be.”
Fernandez said it’s time for players to decompress from a mentally taxing season, and plenty of his players want to go home to reconnect with family and friends. Junior guard Elisa Pinzan has not been home to Italy since August.
“Now, they can have some time off and I don’t want to see them for a while,” Fernandez said. “We’re not going to do anything in the spring. They can hopefully enjoy being a college student as much as they can, finish off the spring semester and a lot of our kids need to go home and see their families.
“I think they’ve represented the University of South Florida and the city of Tampa in a great way.”