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USF women’s basketball returns from 31-day layoff, beats Tulsa

The No. 14 Bulls, still without four of their top players, cruise to their 10th straight victory.
USF freshman Mihaela Lazic looks for an opening during a game against Tulsa on Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021, at Yuengling Center.
USF freshman Mihaela Lazic looks for an opening during a game against Tulsa on Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021, at Yuengling Center. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Feb. 14

TAMPA — The longest midseason layoff in USF women’s basketball history — 31 coronavirus-hampered days — ended Saturday with the extension of the longest winning streak in program history.

The No. 14 Bulls beat Tulsa 67-46 for their 10th straight victory. They improved to 11-1, 9-0 in the American Athletic Conference, with the lone loss coming against then-No. 4 Baylor, 67-62, in the second week of the season.

“We were feeling really good about how we were playing before (the coronavirus stoppage),” coach Jose Fernandez said. “We were in the flow and had great continuity, so it was disappointing that we had to stop. But now we have a few weeks before the NCAA Tournament, and we have an opportunity to get that continuity back.

“We do have a really good basketball team, and we could still have a really special season.”

Part of the optimism stems from Saturday’s performance, which did not feature four significant contributors who are still dealing with coronavirus issues: the team’s Nos. 1 and scorers, guards Elena Tsineke (averaging 12 points a game) and Maria Alvarez (10.2); and wings Krystyna Brabencova (5.9) and Cristina Bermejo (1.5). That’s 30 points a game sitting on the sideline.

Enter redshirt freshman Mihaela Lazic, who in USF ‘s first 11 games averaged 1 point and less than six minutes a game. On Saturday, Lazic finished with 10 points and 34 minutes of playing time, more than half of her season total of 62 minutes.

“Honestly, my teammates and coaches made me feel that they trusted me, and that gave me confidence,” said Lazic, who learned Thursday that she would start. “I realized this is my chance to step up, and I knew I had to step up for my teammates.”

Forward Bethy Mununga, who finished with a game-high 19 points and 15 rebounds, said she wasn’t surprised by Lazic’s play: “Everyone on this team can step up and play. We have confidence in everybody, including the freshmen.”

Fernandez said he believed the four players who missed the game would be back within a week, depending on the results of virus testing.

USF is looking forward to consistent practice time after having just three full practices (Thursday and Friday, and a light one Saturday morning) in the previous month. The rest of the time during the layoff, Mununga said, “we spent a lot of time communicating (on computers).”

On Saturday, the Bulls got into a rhythm pretty quickly with guards Sydni Harvey (14 points, seven assists) and Elisa Pinzan (13 points, seven assists) efficiently running the offense and all but shutting down Tulsa (5-9, 4-9). Harvey and Pinzan did play a few minutes more than they usually average, but they never looked fatigued.

Throughout the game, USF looked more fit than the Golden Hurricane, which trailed 17-12 after the first quarter, then steadily fell more behind as the game wore on.

“I’m really proud of the fact that although we were without four of our guys, we really stepped up and showed what we’re about,” Fernandez said.

“This team said we’re at home and we’re not losing at home. One of our strengths is our depth, and that really showed.”