FORT WORTH, TEXAS — USF women’s basketball will have the opportunity to defend its AAC Tournament title after beating No. 6-seeded Houston 58-50 on Wednesday night at Dickies Arena to advance to the final.
The Bulls (24-7, 14-3 AAC) are going to the championship game for the sixth time since joining the AAC after beating the Cougars (18-16, 9-10) for the second time in a week. They also contained Houston’s offense that scored at least 65 points in each of its first two tournament matchups.
“Our kids knew what was at stake,” coach Jose Fernandez said. “I think defensively, we set the tone. We knew how important this game was to Houston … we knew they were going to play with a lot of energy, with a lot of enthusiasm.
“So, credit to what our program is and credit to the type of players that we have at the University of South Florida.”
USF managed to pull off the win despite allowing Houston’s leading scorer, sophomore guard Laila Blair, to finish with half of Houston’s points. Blair scored 70 points over her three games in the tournament.
However, the rest of the Cougars’ starting lineup combined for just 25 points and five made field goals.
“[Blair] wasn’t going to beat us by herself,” Fernandez said. “But she was very free from the very beginning, and I thought [guard Tiara] Young attacked and got to the rim. But I thought our outside defense was really good for the most part in keeping them in front of us and making them shoot over us. ”
Houston coach Ronald Hughey said his team wasn’t able to take advantage of USF’s mistakes when given the chance. The Cougars held the Bulls to 30% shooting from the floor.
“We always talked about X-factors have to step up when the opportunity comes,” he said. “Now whether it was one shot, one rebound or one steal, whatever the case may be, but you have to do your job and you have to perform. That didn’t happen consistently for us tonight.
“You have to do your job, you have to rotate, especially against a good team like them … They’re good, we aspire to get to where they are within the conference, be the top team here and we’re still learning and growing.”
With just eight made field goals in the first half, USF depended on some flawless free throw shooting to take an eight-point lead into halftime. The Bulls were a perfect 13-of-13 from the charity stripe and finished 20-of-22 for the game.
“It’s huge, especially against a team like Houston that’s really aggressive man-to-man-wise and gets in the path of passing lanes,” Fernandez said. “So if you’re not shooting the ball well and you’re in the bonus, you got to step up and get to the line and make your free throws.”
Despite the offense not improving much in the final 20 minutes, USF managed to hold a double-digit lead for much of the second half, going up by as many as 15 points.
Junior guard Elisa Pinzan led the way for the Bulls with 14 points to go along with seven rebounds and four assists. Sophomore guard Elena Tsineke and senior forward Shae Leverett joined her in double figures with 11 and 10 points, respectively.
Pinzan has an impressive pair of performances in the tournament, finishing with 16 points in the Bulls win over Memphis on Tuesday night. She’s had a confident and aggressive mentality for the last few weeks.
“My teammates just make me confident as well, sharing the ball, giving me the extra pass and I just want to knock down shots and that’s what I did,” she said of the reason for her play.
With UCF’s win against SMU on Wednesday afternoon, the Bulls will face their rivals for the third time this season with the tournament crown on the line. The Knights won the first two matchups in convincing fashion, beating USF by an average of 18.5 points.
Pinzan admitted that the losses have weighed on the Bulls’ minds and that they hope to avenge losing the regular-season title by winning the tournament championship for the second year in a row.
“I think we gave up the regular-season champions that we won last year and we’re not going to give up the conference tournament championship, I’m sure,” she said. “I know everybody’s going to be ready. My teammates are going to be ready and we’re going to go out there and play our game, take care of the ball and we’re going to be alright.”
The Bulls and Knights tip off Thursday at 9 p.m. ET from Dickies Arena. The game will be broadcast on ESPNU and iHeartRadio Bulls Unlimited.