No back-to-back titles for Bulls with third loss to UCF

The Bulls failed to beat UCF for the third time this season and defend their conference tournament title in a 53-45 loss to the Knights on Thursday. ORACLE PHOTO/ALBERTO CAMARGO

FORT WORTH, TEXAS — USF women’s basketball junior guard Elisa Pinzan practically guaranteed an AAC Tournament Final victory following the team’s win over Houston on Wednesday. The Bulls were not able to make good on her promise as they lost to UCF 53-45 in the championship game Thursday night at Dickies Arena.

The Bulls (24-8, 14-4 AAC) fell to the Knights (27-3, 17-1) for the third time this season and failed to defend their conference tournament crown. UCF also beat them for the regular-season title, losing just one game in conference play.

“Our program and our team is not going to be defined by one basketball game,” coach Jose Fernandez said following the loss. “A lot of people would like to be where we’re at, we’ve won 24 games, we got a good basketball team. Unfortunately we got beat by one team three times.”

USF was competitive for the first three and a half quarters, holding the lead on several occasions. The Bulls led UCF by six in the second quarter and held a two-point advantage going into the fourth, but the final period is where they saw the game slip away.

The Knights outscored the Bulls 16-6 in the fourth and forced them into multiple live ball turnovers. After turning it over just six times in the first half, USF finished with 17 for the game.

“It’s tough because usually when we lead at halftime or when we lead in the fourth quarter, we close out these types of games,” Fernandez said. “But you got to give Central Florida a lot of credit, it was a one-possession, two-possession game and they made plays in the fourth quarter and we didn’t.”

One of the keys for UCF down the stretch was shutting down sophomore guard Elena Tsineke, who scored eight points in the third quarter and led all scorers with 14 going into the final quarter. She was held scoreless over the last 10 minutes.

“They locked me down,” Tsineke said. “We fought hard and I’m proud of my team and there’s a lot more to do. We got to the NCAA Tournament, so this is our last chance to do that.”

The conference tournament title win was made even sweeter for UCF after losing in the championship game last year to the Bulls. Senior forward Masseny Kaba was hoping to meet USF in the final after deciding to return for her “super senior” season.

“For me, I wanted to play USF because it was like a bittersweet moment, especially when we found that they won last night,” she said. “And it was like we were here last year, the same position and it was like ‘Who’s going to win this?’

“We came up short last year and I made a commitment that if I came back, we were going to win. And that’s what we did.”

The Bulls can now turn their attention to the NCAA Tournament Selection Show on Sunday, when they will learn of their next opponent. Although the Bulls’ season isn’t completely over, that doesn’t numb the disappointment the team feels from Thursday’s loss. 

Instead, they plan to use the pain to push themselves even harder in the final phase of the season.

“I don’t know if I would say it’s a comfort,” Tsineke said. “It’s mostly motivating because we can do more things. It’s time to prove more stuff.”

 The selection show will be broadcast on ESPN at 8 p.m. ET.