TAMPA (March 13, 2023) – The USF women’s basketball team didn’t do much talking Sunday night. There were no bold proclamations or flamboyant guarantees.
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But one thing became clear after the Bulls (26-6) were given a No. 8 seed and a first-round matchup against the No. 9 Marquette Golden Eagles (21-10) on Friday in the NCAA Tournament at Columbia, South Carolina.
The Bulls, regular-season champions of the American Athletic Conference, were wounded following last Tuesday’s shocking defeat against Wichita State in the AAC Tournament quarterfinals. For a few days, they were probably dazed and confused.
Now they are laser focused — and ready for some postseason redemption.
“I will be 200 percent ready to play … maybe even more … because any game can be my last game at USF,” Bulls senior center Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu said. “I will give everything I possibly can just to have another game.”
“We all know that we didn’t have a good game,” Bulls senior guard Elena Tsineke said. “It was a bad day. But I think it made us all hungry and ready to respond. Our practices (have been) different. We’re working harder. We want it more. Sometimes, things happen for a reason.”
It seemed appropriate that USF green (and gold) would open the NCAA Tournament on Friday (St. Patrick’s Day). But everything else about the bracket seemed strangely familiar.
Just like last season, USF’s matchup was the second game announced during ESPN’s Selection Sunday unveiling. Just like last season, the Bulls were sent to the 8-9 game in Columbia, South Carolina. And just like last season, USF faces a potential second-round game against the No. 1 team in America, the home-standing and SEC champion South Carolina Gamecocks (32-0), who are prohibitive favorites to win the national title.
In past seasons, USF coach Jose Fernandez was critical of the NCAA’s seeding decisions, often believing that his team deserved a better fate. Sunday night, he wasn’t interested in any sparring matches.
“I don’t think we controlled what we needed to control the last two and a half weeks of the season,” said Fernandez, who is presiding over the ninth NCAA-bound team in USF women’s basketball history. “So we deserve to be seeded where we got seeded.
“This was the 10th year of that (AAC) tournament. We played for the championship six times. Three times we lost in the semifinal. It was the only time we’ve been bounced in the first round. It happens. It’s part of sports, right? It wasn’t our night and I didn’t do a good enough job preparing those guys. … And now, we get another chance. Deservedly so. Over 16 games, we proved we were the best team in the league. We scheduled well (in non-conference games). We’re going to be ready.”
The Bulls have victories against Texas (70-65) and Arkansas (66-65 in overtime) while suffering narrow defeats against Ohio State (88-86 in overtime), NC State (65-57) and Michigan (63-58). Overall, USF had seven NCAA Tournament teams on its schedule (including East Carolina, which won the AAC Tournament and the league’s automatic bid).
Marquette, which went 13-7 in the Big East Conference, was 11-7 at mid-season, but won 10 of its last 13 games, including a home 59-52 victory against the UConn Huskies. It marked the first time Geno Auriemma’s UConn team had lost back-to-back games since 1993.
The Golden Eagles, coached by Megan Duffy (Notre Dame player from 2002-06) are led by 5-foot-11 senior guard Jordan King (15.9 points per game, 4.2 rebounds, 4.0 assists), 6-1 senior forward Chloe Marotta (14.5 points, 9.1 rebounds) and 6-2 junior forward Liza Karlen (11.8 points, 7.3 rebounds).
The Bulls are paced by Fankam Mendjiadeu (16.7 points, 12.3 rebounds) and Tsineke (18.0 points), the AAC’s co-Players of the Year, along with 6-1 wing Sammie Puisis (15.8 points), who has 108 made 3-pointers this season to tie Iowa’s Caitlin Clark for the national lead.
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South Florida recorded its 10th 20-win season during the 2021-22 campaign while playing in its sixth American Athletic Conference championship game in its nine years in the conference. The Bulls achieved their highest national ranking of the season when it checked in at No. 13 in the Nov. 30 Associated Press Top 25 Poll, and advanced to their seventh NCAA Tournament appearance in the last nine years.
USF has made 17 postseason tournament appearances and had eight NCAA Tournament berths in head coach Jose Fernandez‘s 22 seasons. The all-time winningest coach in program history, Fernandez has guided USF to 10 20-win seasons, two WNIT final four appearances, the 2009 WNIT championship, and has won over 400 career games. Fernandez was named a finalist for the WBCA and semifinalist for the Naismith National Coach of the Year Awards. He was also tabbed the 2021 American Athletic Conference Coach of the Year at the conclusion of the 2020-21 campaign.
In 2021-22, the Bulls had three players recognized by The American for impressive seasons, including Elena Tsineke (All-Conference First Team), Bethy Mununga (All-Conference Second Team) and Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu (All-Conference Second Team).
In addition, Tsineke and Mununga were named to the American Athletic Conference All-Tournament Team.