Women’s basketball’s four toughest matchups for 2021 season

The USF women’s basketball team is set to play one of its most difficult nonconference slates in program history that includes three teams that made the final four of last year’s NCAA Tournament. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

After seeing much of last year’s nonconference canceled due to COVID-19, coach Jose Fernandez and the USF women’s basketball team are gearing up for perhaps its most challenging slate since he took over the program in November 2000.

Within the first few weeks of the season, the Bulls could potentially face off against three teams that reached the Final Four in last year’s NCAA tournament, including the reigning national champions Stanford. 

“With the caliber of team we have returning, this type of schedule will not only prepare us for league play but will give us some great opportunities to bolster our [strength of schedule] and NET ranking,” Fernandez said in a statement Sept. 17.

Here are the four toughest nonconference matchups for the Bulls this season.

Tennessee, away Nov. 15

The Bulls will head to Rocky Top to face the Lady Vols at Thompson-Boling Arena for the first matchup between the teams in program history. 

Tennessee has been one of women’s hoops’ perennial powers for decades winning eight national titles and appearing in 18 Final Fours, second only to UConn. 

While the Lady Vols haven’t been as dominant since the late, great coach Pat Summitt stepped down, not appearing in a Final Four since 2008, current coach Kellie Harper, a former player under Summitt, is trying to lift the program back to where it belongs.

Key returners for Harper’s squad include Second Team All-SEC selection guard Rae Burrell, All-Freshman team member guard Marta Suárez and center Tamari Key, an All-Defensive team pick.

The Lady Vols, despite playing in perhaps the most stacked conference in the country, the SEC, still finished ranked No. 16 in the coaches’ poll at the end of the season, two spots higher than USF, and made it to the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament where they lost to Michigan.

UConn, neutral site Nov. 21

While this is only a potential matchup for the Bulls, providing they beat Syracuse in their opening game of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas, the Huskies are still one of the toughest teams USF will probably face this year.

A consistent national title contender and longtime AAC rival, UConn is gearing up for yet another run to the Final Four and possibly its 12th national title with one of its most talented teams in recent memory. 

Reigning national player of the year guard Paige Bueckers returns for her sophomore campaign and will be joined by one of the most highly touted freshmen ever in guard Azzi Fudd, who won the Gatorade Player of the Year award for women’s basketball as a sophomore, an unprecedented feat.

Along with those stars, coach Geno Auriemma returns the nucleus of a team that went 28-2, finished third in the final coaches’ poll, ranked sixth in the country in points per game (81.9) and opponents’ points per game (52.6) and made it to a record 21st final four appearance where the Huskies fell to Arizona in the national semifinal.

South Carolina, neutral site Nov. 22

Another national title favorite, if the Bulls play South Carolina, it would be on the final day of the Battle 4 Atlantis. 

Fresh off leading Team USA to its seventh consecutive Olympic gold medal, coach Dawn Staley is back in Columbia, ready to lead one of the most stacked rosters in the nation. 

In addition to returning most of last year’s squad, Staley recruited one of the best freshman classes since taking over the program, reeling in three of the top five freshmen in the class of 2021 with Raven Johnson (No. 2), Saniya Rivers (No. 3) and Sania Feagin (No. 4) committing to the Gamecocks.

South Carolina is one of the few teams in the nation that can keep up with USF on the boards with Lisa Leslie Center of the Year award recipient Aliyah Boston leading the SEC with 11.5 rebounds per game. 

Staley, Boston and the rest of the Gamecocks will look to one-up their finish from last season when they lost in heartbreaking fashion in the national semifinal against Stanford when Boston missed a put-back at the buzzer.

Stanford, neutral site Nov. 26

Before checking out from the Bahamas, USF will face the reigning champs in a one-off game for the Baha Mar Hoops Pink Flamingo Championship. 

Boosting one of the best offenses in the country, Stanford ranked 14th in the nation in scoring offense averaging 77.7 points per game. 

Tara VanDerveer, the all-time winningest coach in women’s college hoops, brings back most of her title-winning team, headlined by last year’s Final Four Most Outstanding Player Haley Jones. 

Jones lit up the Final Four, scoring 24 points in Stanford’s semifinal win over South Carolina and following that up with 17 against Arizona in the national title game. Also returning is standout freshman center Cameron Brink, guard Lexie Hull and guard Anna Wilson. 

The Cardinal are once again one of the best teams in the country and have the type of talent that can help lead them to a second consecutive national title.