TAMPA — In the immediate wake of his team's 62-52 loss to Rutgers in Wednesday night's WNIT semifinal, USF coach Jose Fernandez grabbed a microphone and did what his outside shooters couldn't for most of the evening.
He hit the mark.
After thanking fans and boosters and acknowledging his two seniors, Fernandez finished by assuring the Sun Dome crowd of 1,781 that the Bulls (23-13) would return to the NCAA Tournament next season. A roar ensued.
"I thought this year we had an NCAA Tournament team," Fernandez said. "And if this team does what they need to do in the offseason and we stay healthy, there should be no reason why we're not in the NCAA Tournament."
Proving they belonged in this year's NCAA field was the Bulls' motivation throughout their WNIT run. USF, previously unbeaten in 2014 against teams not named UConn or Louisville, had won its first four tournament games by an average margin of 13 points.
But before its fourth-largest home crowd of the season, USF shot 31.3 percent and hit 5 of 20 3-pointers. Senior Inga Orekhova, the Bulls' top 3-point shooter, went 2-for-11 on 3s and finished with 10 points. Senior Akila McDonald also scored 10.
USF never trailed by more than six in the first 35 minutes. Courtney Williams' layup cut the Bulls' deficit to 53-51 with 2:48 to go before Rutgers (27-9) ended the game with a 9-1 run. Williams finished with 19.
"I thought we had some really good looks and a lot of shots that we took were shots we usually make," Fernandez said. "There were just too many that just didn't fall down for us, and that was big."