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USF women win first league title of any kind

With a victory over rival UCF, the Bulls clinch the American Athletic Conference regular-season championship.
The USF Bulls celebrate while posing for a team photo at center court after beating UCF to clinch the AAC regular-season championship, their first league title of any kind.
The USF Bulls celebrate while posing for a team photo at center court after beating UCF to clinch the AAC regular-season championship, their first league title of any kind. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Mar. 3
Updated Mar. 3

TAMPA — It took only 49 years — and several nail-biting, head-scratching moments in the fourth quarter Tuesday night against UCF — but the USF women’s basketball team has finally won a conference title.

The 65-62 victory was all the more sweet because it came in the last home game of the season, on senior night, against the arch-rival Knights, a team expected to give the Bulls a battle.

Through three quarters, however, it was pretty much all USF, which led 18-5 after the first quarter, 34-17 at the half and 44-33 after three.

Then, steadily in the fourth quarter, things got dicey and sometimes confounding.

UCF cut the gap to six points with 1 minute, 28 seconds remaining, only to have the Bulls push their lead to 62-52 with 57 seconds to go. What followed was a series of miscues and turnovers, ultimately leading to a last-second 3-point attempt by UCF that would have tied it. Fortunately for the Bulls, the ball rimmed out.

USF guard Elisa Pinzan (4) drives to the hoop during the first half.
USF guard Elisa Pinzan (4) drives to the hoop during the first half. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

“We definitely made it more interesting than we wanted to right there at the end,” USF coach Jose Fernandez said. “We have to do better than that. The good thing is that we will learn from it.”

Fernandez, who has coached at USF for 20 years, made a point to praise the Bulls’ historic achievement.

“It’s been a tough year with a lot of challenges (including a 31-day layoff from games due to the coronavirus),” Fernandez said. “But we have fought through it. This team has a lot to be proud of. Now this team will go down in the history books.”

For the record, these 15th-ranked Bulls (15-2, 13-1 in the American Athletic Conference) put an end to a conference-title drought that survived stints in the Sun Belt Conference, Metro Conference, Conference USA, the Big East and AAC. Before Tuesday, the Bulls finished second in the AAC to Connecticut four times in the previous seven years. The Huskies, who never lost a league game, now play in the Big East.

USF will play UCF (13-3, 11-2) again Thursday in Orlando. Regardless of that outcome, however, USF has sealed up the league title — by percentage points — after getting a forfeit victory over Memphis on Jan. 17. The Bulls also have the No. 1 seed for the conference tournament starting Monday in Fort Worth, Texas

USF forward Bethy Mununga (20) goes up for a rebound during the second half.
USF forward Bethy Mununga (20) goes up for a rebound during the second half. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

If the Bulls play next week like they did in the first three quarters on Tuesday, they look like strong favorites to take the tournament title, as well. But if they play like they did in the final couple of minutes, it could be rough.

“It has been tough to come back from that (31-day) layoff, and we were fortunate to win (five of six games afterward),” Fernandez said. “We need to get some practice in. But we still have little time.”

On Tuesday the Bulls were once again led by junior guard Elisa Pinzan with 18 points. Sophomore guard Elena Tsineke had 12, and forward Bethy Mununga added 11 points and 13 rebounds.

Mununga said it was extra special to win the conference title, especially after a subpar performance in a 67-49 loss to Houston on Sunday.

“We knew that was not us (against Houston),” said Mununga, who along with Shae Leverett are the only seniors on the Bulls’ roster. “We knew we were better than that and that it was important to come back and play well (on Tuesday). I’m very pleased we won.”