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USF women’s basketball team hosts two of nation’s top six teams this week

No. 4 Baylor visits the Yuengling Center on Tuesday, No. 6 Mississippi State on Saturday.
USF forward Bethy Mununga (20) celebrates a basket during a 2019 game against Baylor at the Yuengling Center in Tampa.
USF forward Bethy Mununga (20) celebrates a basket during a 2019 game against Baylor at the Yuengling Center in Tampa. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Nov. 30, 2020

TAMPA — The USF women’s basketball team this week hosts two of the nation’s top teams — Baylor on Tuesday and Mississippi State on Saturday — filling the Bulls with equal parts excitement and frustration.

The excitement is easy to figure: Baylor (1-0) is the defending national champion from 2019 (before the pandemic cut 2020 short) and is currently ranked No. 4 in the country. Mississippi State (1-0) is right behind at No. 6. 

It’s an obvious chance for the unranked Bulls (1-0) to show their fans and the world how good they are — which is where the frustration kicks in.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, fans are not permitted inside the Yuengling Center, meaning games will be played in a cavernous, echoing, relative void.

“I feel terrible for our fans, because we have such a great following, and I think this would have been a well-attended game,” USF coach Jose Fernandez said. “It’s something we have to adjust to. … Against Jacksonville (in Saturday’s season-opening 84-46 home victory), it was so quiet. Nobody there. You have to create your own energy.”

The Bulls will need all the energy they can muster, because Baylor looks as good as it ever has, particularly in the post with 6-2 Nalyssa Smith (who averaged 14.3 points and eight rebounds last season) and 6-foot-3 Queen Egbo (10.3 points, 6.8 rebounds).

“No doubt they are two of the best post players in the country,” Fernandez said. “It’s exciting to be going up against them.”

USF counters with 6-foot Bethy Mununga (10.1 rebounds, 9.2 assists) and 6-2 Shae Leverett (6.3 rebounds, 5.6 points). But for the Bulls to have a chance, Fernandez said, they will need a complete team effort, including excellent play from their guards, projected as one of the Bulls’ biggest strengths.

Elena Tsineke (who averaged a team-high 12.4 points per game last season) and Sydney Harvey (11.8 points), must “protect the ball” and “shoot a big number” — a field-goal percentage in the mid-to-high-40-percent range, Fernandez said.

If everything goes perfectly, USF just might have enough to pull off the upset — which could be seen, by the way, on ESPN+. 

The optimism stems partly from last season’s game at Baylor, in which the Bulls gave the Bears just about all they could handle before falling 58-46. Midway through the third quarter, Baylor held just a one-point lead.

USF played that game without Tsineke, who, because of NCAA eligibility rules for foreign transfers (she is from Greece), didn’t become eligible until the day after the game.

As for Mississippi State, USF hopes to have a better showing than it did last year against the Bulldogs, who beat the Bulls 86-61 during a midseason tournament in Las Vegas.

Even though there won’t be fans in the building this week, Fernandez said it is still nice to be playing the games at home.

“This is where we practice,” he said. “This is home.”