FORT WORTH, TEXAS — USF women’s basketball’s quest to repeat as AAC Tournament champions started off a little tighter than most would have expected. The Bulls struggled to take down No. 7-seeded Memphis 63-53 at Dickies Arena.
It took big-time offensive performances from guards junior Elisa Pinzan and sophomore Elena Tsineke for the No. 2-seeded Bulls (23-7, 13-3 AAC) to put the Tigers (16-12, 6-10) away. Tsineke led all scorers with 22 points while Pinzan finished with 16 to go along with seven rebounds and six assists.
“I thought Elena was really, really good in the open floor finishing around the rim,” coach Jose Fernandez said. “Games like these you got to have some players step up.”
Both guards did a good bit of their damage down the stretch, combining for 16 fourth quarter points. Tsineke was particularly lethal in the second half, scoring 18 of her points over the final two periods.
The Tigers had no response for Tsineke after holding her to four points in the first half. She was either getting to the basket or the free throw line.
“I don’t think we did anything different,” Memphis coach Katrina Merriweather said. “They obviously set some player screens and we got stuck on them and I think [Fernandez] gave her some easier looks. But for the most part she’s just really good and at some point that ball was going to go in.”
After being taken out of the game during the third quarter, she came back in with an aggressive mindset and scored eight consecutive points for the Bulls.
“I was just trying to forget what happened in the first half,” Tsineke said. “I got upset at myself that I got two stupid fouls so I said, ‘There’s a lot more time left and my team needs me.’ I just wanted to be good for my team.”
The Bulls looked in trouble early in the contest as they struggled to get much going offensively with both Tsineke and senior forward Bethy Mununga picking up early fouls. They trailed by as many as seven points in the second quarter until Pinzan went on a run of her own, scoring all 10 of her first half points in the quarter, including a pair of threes.
She also made big plays on the defensive end, getting a steal and layup to tie the game at 27 going into halftime.
“Elena was on the bench with two fouls, so was Bethy. I believe Pinzan was the only starter in the game at the end of the half,” Fernandez said. “We just needed to make it to halftime to make adjustments and talk and figure some things out.
“But we don’t make it to halftime if she doesn’t make that three and then makes that layup because [the half] ended on a 5-0 run.”
With sophomore guard Maria Alvarez out nursing an injury she suffered in the win against Houston on March 2, along with the foul trouble to Tsineke and Mununga, Fernandez was forced deep into his bench. Ten players saw playing time in the first half.
For most of the second half, however, Fernandez relied on the more familiar group of Pinzan, Tsineke, Mununga, junior guard Sydni Harvey and senior forward Shae Leverett in the place of forward Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu, who is the typical starter.
It was the same lineup that helped the team win the AAC Tournament title last year.
“They played in a lot of big games,” Fernandez said. “You lose a little bit of offense in there with Dulcy [on the bench], but I thought Shae really protected the rim and did a good job defensively.
“But those four guys with Bethy and the three perimeter guys, they have a lot of experience. They played in a lot of meaningful games. So I’m glad we did it.”
With the win, USF will play in its ninth-consecutive tournament semifinal against Houston on Wednesday at 7 p.m. with a berth in the tournament final at stake.
The Bulls and the Cougars will tip off at 7 p.m. at Dickies Arena. The game will be streamed on ESPN+ and broadcast on Bulls Unlimited.