Women’s basketball clinches second regular season conference championship since 2020

The Bulls clinched their second regular season conference title in just three years after Saturday’s win. ORACLE PHOTO/HANNAH HALILI

Despite early turnovers and rocky shooting, USF women’s basketball won at home over the SMU Mustangs 70-62.

The Bulls (24-5,13-1 AAC) beat out the Mustangs (15-9, 6-6 AAC) thanks to a solid 27-point scoring outing from senior guard Elena Tsineke.

The Bulls started off rocky, struggling to handle the ball as they saw frequent loose balls and turnovers. In the first quarter alone, they turned the ball over six times and really struggled to hold their dribble against the Mustang defense.

SMU led the first half by a small margin after a hot start in the first quarter. USF couldn’t seem to slow them down. Despite this, the Bulls kept themselves in the game and only trailed by two at the end of the first quarter.

What seemed like a solid start for both offenses eventually faded, as both teams struggled to shoot most of the second quarter. The Mustangs shot only 38% to the Bulls’ 33%.

Both teams went scoreless for more than four minutes near the end of the second quarter. USF eventually put points back on the board with a layup from senior forward Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu to tie and a buzzer-beater from Tsineke to take the lead 33-31.

Coach Jose Fernandez said he urged the team to improve in the second half after the slow second quarter.

“I think what we talked about at halftime, we needed to win those first five minutes of the third quarter,” Fernandez said. “I didn’t think we closed the third quarter out like we needed to but I thought we came out in those five, six minutes in a big way.”

Women’s basketball turned it around in the second half, taking a commanding lead and never letting up. After some quick steals that helped fuel a solid 11-0 run, the Bulls ended the third quarter on a 47-40 lead.

Throughout the fourth, the Bulls kept control of the game with a 10-point lead for six minutes straight. Although both teams frequently traded baskets, USF held SMU’s shooting to only 40%. Junior guard Sammie Puisis poured in three straight three-pointers alongside Tsineke’s 10 points to help give the Bulls the win.

Puisis said she saw that the consistency of USF’s play and hustle is what allowed them to win this game despite an almost equal first half from both teams.

“I mean, I think every team is gonna come out and give us their best punch. So they’re gonna go on a run, we’re gonna go on a run, but who’s gonna maintain and go hard for all 40 minutes? I just think we came out on top and in the second half,’ Puisis said.

With Saturday’s win, USF women’s basketball has reached its second AAC regular season title in just three years. The last time the Bulls were AAC regular season champs was the 2021-22 season, when they led with a 13-2 conference record. They now seek out the AAC championship title in Fort Worth and a possible third straight appearance in the NCAA’s March Madness Tournament.

When talking about the team’s future, Coach Fernandez said he feels his team deserves a shot at the NCAA tournament this year. He said he hopes for a win in Texas to help prove to the NCAA that the Bulls are capable of competing.

“You finish the season with 26 wins, go to [Fort Worth] to get three, and hopefully finish the season with 29 wins and see what the committee thinks of us,” he said. “I’ve been doing it a long time. That committee shifts every four years, right? So it all depends on who’s in the room and what that committee values sometimes.”

Women’s basketball will play against the Tulsa Golden Hurricane on Wednesday at 7 p.m. The game will be broadcast on ESPN+.