War on I-4 rematch filled with title implications

Sophomore guard Elena Tsineke scored 12 points in USF’s Jan. 16 loss to UCF earlier this season. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

The last time USF women’s basketball played UCF at the Yuengling Center, the game ended with the Bulls hoisting the program’s first regular-season conference title following a 65-62 win March 2.

When the Knights (17-3, 9-1 AAC) come to town Sunday, the stakes are just as high for the Bulls (17-6, 7-2) who are looking to keep the hopes of a back-to-back title alive.

The Bulls are currently sitting second place in the AAC standings, a game-and-a-half behind their rivals, who beat them earlier this season in a Jan. 16 meeting in Orlando.

With a loss Sunday, it’d be very difficult for the Bulls to make a push for the regular-season championship.

“We don’t win Sunday, we don’t deserve to be regular-season champions,” coach Jose Fernandez said during a media availability Friday. “They beat us twice, right? And with them beating us twice, they deserve to be regular-season conference champions.”

In the previous matchup against the Knights, USF was blitzed from the start, falling behind 7-0 early in the first quarter and never managing to get themselves back in the game, ultimately losing 67-51.

Despite double-digit scoring from forwards Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadu, Bethy Mununga and guard Elena Tsineke, USF struggled against UCF’s signature zone. The Bulls shot just 38%  from the field and 25% from three-point range to go along with 19 turnovers.

“We got to do a great job taking care of the ball, getting through their initial pressure,” Fernandez said. “And we got to get the ball into the right areas against their zone and we got to make shots. It’s going to come down to that.”

The timing of this edition of the War on I-4 comes during one of USF’s worst shooting slumps of the season. After going 2-of-27 from three against Tulane on Feb. 6, the Bulls followed it up with a 2-of-13 performance against Temple on Wednesday.

In its lone conference loss of the season to Cincinnati on Jan. 22, UCF watched as the Bearcats made 52% of their attempts from beyond the arc. Therefore, Fernandez knows how critical a decent performance from range will be come Sunday.

“We’re 4-for-40 in our last two games from three-point range, that’s not good,” he said. “So we got to have guys step up and make. Biggest difference we’ve talked about, we were shooting 38% from three-point range in November and December, [now] we’re shooting under 20.

“Well it’s about making shots, you got to step up and make shots.”

Although the stakes are high against UCF, the Bulls return most of the roster that played in that title-clinching game against the Knights last season. 

With all of that big-game experience on the team, players like Tsineke have a lot of confidence in the group’s ability to show up in the biggest moments of the year.

“I do have a lot of confidence in my teammates and I feel like if we all want it bad, it’s going to happen, that’s it,” Tsineke said. “When we play against UCF it’s really who wants it more, who’s going to work harder for it during the game.”

The Bulls will meet the Knights in a 2 p.m. Sunday tipoff. The game will be broadcast on ESPN 2 and iHeartRadio Bulls Unlimited.