USF looks to bolster NCAA resume at AAC Tournament

The USF women’s basketball team returns to the AAC Tournament looking to win its second consecutive title. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

Inside the USF women’s basketball practice facility at the Muma Basketball Center there is a wall lined with banners commemorating the program’s accomplishments from the 2009 Women’s National Invitation Tournament to last year’s AAC titles and subsequent NCAA tournament appearance.

At the end of the wall, there is a banner that is almost completely empty, except for its header that reads 2022. 

“We determine what that banner [says],” coach Jose Fernandez said.

After missing out on a second consecutive regular-season title, the Bulls (22-7, 12-3 AAC) will have an opportunity to determine what will be written on that banner as they begin their quest to repeat as AAC Tournament champions on Tuesday.

USF enters the tournament as the No. 2 seed and will kick off against Memphis at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas. The Bulls had their lone matchup against the Tigers (16-11, 6-9) postponed due to health and safety protocols within USF’s program.

Memphis advanced to the second round of the tournament after defeating East Carolina 59-48 on Monday. The Tigers have bounced back after finishing second-to-last in the conference in 2021 with just four wins all season.

If Fernandez’s team can carry the momentum from its 71-38 win against Houston on March 2, it wouldn’t be hard to envision the team making another deep run in the Lone Star State.

Aside from the short-term conference implications of the tournament, the Bulls will also look to strengthen their resume ahead of the NCAA tournament selection show on Sunday. Fernandez believes that after closing the season on a five-game win streak, his team has done more than enough to be among the 68-team field.

“It would be a travesty if we weren’t in,” he said following the victory against Houston. “But again, if you remember that 2007 year, 2009 year … we’ve been on the wrong side of the bubble four times, but I think we’ve controlled what we can control, we challenged this group. They did what they were supposed to.”

Senior forward Bethy Mununga said the team is focused on the task at hand, repeating as tournament champions and adding another accolade to their wall full of banners.

“We all want to go back to the NCAA tournament, but I think we are more focused on the conference,” Mununga said. “Because we are sitting in second place in the standings, well that’s behind us, right now we want to get a conference tournament championship.”

Although Fernandez believes the Bulls should be a lock for the NCAA tournament, he said the team needs a decent performance in the conference tournament to solidify its position. But he’s confident in his team’s ability to perform on this type of stage.

“This is our ninth year in the conference,” Fernandez said. “The eight years we’ve been in this league, we played five championship games, won one, lost two semifinals to Connecticut and one to Louisville. We’ve been in the semifinal every single year.”

But Fernandez is also wary of the team looking too far into the future and overlooking the Tigers on Tuesday.

“We can’t go to the conference tournament and go lay an egg in the first round,” he said.

The Bulls and Tigers will tip off at 7 p.m. at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas. The game will be streamed on ESPN+ and broadcast on Bulls Unlimited.