It didn’t matter that USF had lost to No. 4 Baylor just a few days earlier. And it didn’t matter that the Bulls trailed by eight Saturday night entering the second quarter against No. 6 Mississippi State. And it certainly didn’t matter that the Bulls had a chance to pull off the upset on the last play of regulation but missed a shot, forcing overtime.
The Bulls overcame all of that for a 67-63 upset win of the Bulldogs at the Yuengling Center. It was the first victory against a top-10 team in the history of USF women’s basketball.
“I’m just happy for our players,” coach Jose Fernandez said. “I’ve coached a lot of games, but for them, this is something they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.”
The historic win didn’t come without its bumps along the way.
USF (2-1) dug itself an early hole heading into the second quarter, trailing 19-11. The Bulls went 1-of-7 (14.3 percent) from 3-point range and shot just 5-of-18 (27.8) from the field in the quarter.
“I just told them to settle down,” Fernandez said of his message after the rough start. “Let’s just do what we practice every day, keep these guys in front of us, stay down defensively ... and run our stuff.”
Fernandez’s words sunk in as USF found a rhythm in the second quarter and its shots started to drop, taking a 36-31 halftime lead. The Bulls shot 9-of-19 from the field (47.4 percent) and 2-of-8 from 3 (25 percent). They also had 15 second-chance points and 10 points off rebounds.
The second half was a tight back-and-forth between the teams, with USF leading 52-47 entering the fourth quarter. Mississippi State rallied to tie at 60 on Rickea Jackson’s free throw with 1:08 left. The Bulls had the final possession of regulation to win it, but Elisa Pinzan’s 3-pointer was off the mark.
Fernandez said he liked the way his team responded against the Bulldogs’ pressure defense, especially with defensive moves and rebounding starting in the second quarter.
“I thought we did a really good job taking care of the basketball,” he said. “We got some crucial stops.”
In overtime, USF clamped down on the Bulldogs (2-1), who did not score in the final 2:26 of the game. Bethy Mununga’s two free throws with 29 second left gave the Bulls the lead for good, 65-63. Mississippi State missed a pair of shots to tie, and Mununga came up with a steal. Pinzan then made two free throws to clinch it with five seconds left.
Mununga, who finished with eight points, including 4-of-5 from the free-throw line, said the team’s discipline kept it in the game, especially when it got into foul trouble. Kristyna Brabencova, who scored nine points, fouled out before overtime, and Maria Alvarez, who also scored nine, fouled out just 15 seconds into the extra period.
“We had a lot of players ... in foul trouble in the first half,” Mununga said. “And we just stayed together. We stayed inseparable.”
Pinzan played a key role in the victory. Before the game, the 5-foot-8 guard told Fernandez, “I got you tonight. I got the double double.”
She did just that with career highs in points (14) and rebounds (11 rebounds), finishing one assist away from a triple double.
“I thought she managed the game really well,” Fernandez said. “She told me she was going to play well tonight, and she did. Credit to her.”
Fernandez said emotions were high after the 67-62 loss to Baylor on Tuesday, but quickly putting that game in the past was key to Saturday’s performance.
“We were still reeling a bit emotionally (at practice Thursday) from the Baylor game,” Fernandez said. “You have to bounce back. When you have adversity, true character comes out, and I’m just happy for them.”