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USF regular-season title hopes swept away after War on I-4 loss

Coach Jose Fernandez was frustrated during Sunday’s loss to UCF as his team shot below 20% from three for the third consecutive game. ORACLE PHOTO/ALEXANDRA URBAN

USF women’s basketball’s quest for back-to-back AAC regular-season titles likely came to an end Sunday as the Bulls fell to UCF 54-33 at the Yuengling Center. The Knights swept the regular-season War on I-4 matchups.

With the loss, the Bulls (17-7, 7-3 AAC) are another game behind the Knights in the conference standings (18-3, 10-1) with just a handful of games remaining in the schedule. 

After barely finishing second to the Bulls in both the regular-season and tournament conference titles in 2021, UCF looks poised to take home the trophy this season after two resounding wins against the Bulls.

“They’re really pissed off about last year about the regular-season title and the conference championship game and it shows,” coach Jose Fernandez said. “We got to make a stand and bounce back.

“They’ve been waiting all year to beat us and they’ve done it twice, convincingly.”

The Bulls were held to their lowest point total of the season Sunday, 16 points less than their previous low which came in the team’s 52-49 loss to Tennessee on Nov. 15. It was also their biggest loss of the season as they trailed UCF from tip-off.

Much like the team’s Jan. 16 loss in Orlando, most of the game was played at UCF’s pace as the Knights looked to slow things down and get the Bulls out of their rhythm.

They forced USF into 17 turnovers and scored 20 points off those turnovers with their signature pressure and zone defense.

More importantly, the Bulls shooting woes continued for the third consecutive game as they shot just 28% from the field and 11% from three. Since the team’s Feb. 6 loss to Tulane, USF is 6-of-61 from beyond the arc over its last three games.

“We didn’t finish inside because we weren’t shooting the ball [well],” Fernandez said. “We got the ball inside, we got it to the high post and we didn’t finish and their guys did and that’s the difference. We can’t just say, ‘Hey, we played bad.’ We didn’t make shots.”

In the second half, the Bulls made multiple runs at the lead, cutting the deficit to as few as three points in the third quarter, but an inability to make stops down the stretch proved costly.

UCF went on an 8-0 run of its own to end the third and entered the final period with a 12-point lead that was too much for the Bulls to overcome. The Knights outscored USF 14-5 in the fourth and 27-12 in the second half.

“We won the first four minutes of the third quarter, right. We hit a three, it’s a two, three point game, but then they go on that run,” Fernandez said.

The Knights received contributions from all over their roster. The team was led in scoring by forward Brittney Smith, who comes off the bench. She scored 17 points in 25 minutes and was joined by forward Masseny Kaba in double-digit scoring.

Meanwhile, the Bulls didn’t have a single player with a positive plus/minus, a stat which measures how well the team performed when an individual player is on the court. Sophomore guard Elena Tsineke was the lone USF player in double-digit scoring with 10 points.

Typically reliable players such as senior forwards Bethy Mununga, Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu and junior guards Sydni Harvey and Elisa Pinzan all had off nights. Mununga’s performance was especially uncharacteristic as she finished a minus-33.

She also grabbed a season-low two rebounds against the Knights. Mununga was ranked ninth in the NCAA in rebounding going into Sunday’s matchup, averaging 11.8 boards per game.

“With her experience and her ability, we can’t afford for her to have these types of games,” Fernandez said.

In addition to likely missing out on the regular-season title, Sunday’s loss holds significant implications for the Bulls’ postseason hopes. Fernandez believes the team will have to win out for the rest of the regular season if they even want a chance to make it to the NCAA tournament.

“We got to come back and have a great practice,” Fernandez said. “We got [to play] Cincinnati, Wichita State twice, East Carolina and Houston. Now, only one of those teams is in the top 100, so you can’t afford to lose any of these games down the stretch.

“If not, guess what? You’re not going to the NCAA Tournament.”

The Bulls will play Cincinnati at the Yuengling Center on Wednesday at 7 p.m. The game will be streamed on ESPN+ and iHeartRadio Bulls Unlimited.