LUBBOCK, Texas — Akila McDonald isn't sure exactly when it dawned on her, but at some point during the past year the USF junior forward came to a realization.
"I just had to take a lot more from my coaches and understand that what they say is pretty much the best thing for me," she said. "I guess it was more so listening and closing my mouth. That got me in some trouble the past couple years."
McDonald let her game do the talking Saturday, when she had seven points and seven rebounds and knocked down a pair of key shots down the stretch in the Bulls' 71-70 win over Texas Tech in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
"It felt really good," said McDonald, who entered the tournament averaging 3.7 points. "It's not a lot of times when I'm a big offensive threat, so it was good to put some points on the board and get us up a little bit."
McDonald's contributions, including a jumper with 2:44 to go that tied the score at 61, helped move USF into the second round of the Spokane Region, where the 10th-seeded Bulls will take on No. 2-seeded California at 9:45 tonight on ESPN2.
If USF (22-10) is to make the program's first Sweet 16 appearance, it will have to find a way to contain Cal's formidable front line. Forwards Gennifer Brandon (12.5 points, 11.3 rebounds per game), Talia Caldwell (9.3, 7.3) and Reshanda Gray (8.4, 4.9) were a major reason the Bears (29-3) earned a share of the Pac-12 title this season.
That trio combined for 43 points and 25 rebounds during Cal's 90-76 first-round win against Fresno State.
"It's going to be crucial," USF coach Jose Fernandez said, "that we don't take plays off. I think the game is going to be won or lost in the paint."
That may put a heavy onus on McDonald — who Fernandez said "has matured a lot" — to not only stay out of foul trouble but also find ways to contribute offensively again, with Cal likely to home in on perimeter players Andrea and Andrell Smith and Inga Orekhova.
Her teammates are confident McDonald is ready for the challenge.
"I felt as if we all fed off Akila's energy and physicality" against Tech, Andrell Smith said. "I think she is going to have a good game because she is a very aggressive and physical player. We feed off that and she knows that."
The Bulls took a few hours to celebrate their thrilling win against Tech on Saturday night, but by Sunday afternoon they made it clear they have greater visions in store.
"Of course we are not satisfied with winning one game," said Orekhova, who scored 20 in the first-round victory. "It was our goal, winning the game, but now we have to take the next step."