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USF women set for conference tourney after badly needed breather

The top-seeded Bulls ended the regular season with five games in a 13-day stretch.
USF women's basketball coach Jose Fernandez leads his team into this week's American Athletic Conference tournament, where the Bulls are the No. 1 seed.
USF women's basketball coach Jose Fernandez leads his team into this week's American Athletic Conference tournament, where the Bulls are the No. 1 seed. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Mar. 7
Updated Mar. 7

USF women’s basketball coach Jose Fernandez had barely thawed from Tuesday night’s ice-water dousing when he was hit with a figurative cold shower, far more sobering than celebratory.

Two nights after clinching the first conference title in the program’s 49-year history with a three-point home win against UCF, the Bulls were shellacked by the Knights, 58-45 in Orlando. UCF’s 6-foot-3 tandem of Masseny Kaba and Brittney Smith inflicted most of the damage, combining for 29 points and 14 rebounds.

“Their two bigs really hurt us in the interior,” said Fernandez, who was missing 6-3 frontcourt reserve Beatriz Jordao (unspecified). “We didn’t have another big body to throw in there once we got into some foul trouble. We had to go zone, we just had to do stuff that we’ve never done before.”

Examined as a solitary 40-minute segment, the defeat seems easier to digest for USF fans. Combine Thursday’s foul trouble with the inevitable hangover from Tuesday’s historic triumph, and a letdown seemed inevitable, perhaps even normal.

But the loss perpetuated a pattern: The No. 15 Bulls (15-3, 12-2), who won a school-record 13 consecutive games earlier this season, have dropped two of their last three, both by double digits. One of the league’s most daunting frontcourts has been outscored, 62-30 in the paint in those two losses, and the team has shot only 25.6 percent (11-for-43) from 3-point range.

Yet Fernandez doesn’t see a team gasping down the season’s final stretch.

To the contrary, the Bulls finally have gotten a chance to breathe.

“We’ll be fine,” Fernandez said.

Thursday’s contest was USF’s fifth in 13 days, an unforgiving stretch created by schedule alterations due to the coronavirus pandemic. But as the top seed in this week’s American Athletic Conference tournament in Fort Worth, Texas, the Bulls earned a first-round bye, giving them four full days to rest and re-calibrate before beginning play Tuesday.

“We went that five-game stretch in 13 days (with) two off-days,” Fernandez said. “We had six practices to get ready for five opponents. ... I was happy that we bounced back at home (Tuesday) against UCF, that was big. But we’ve got to play a lot better than we played (Thursday) on the road.”

Related: USF's Kristyna Brabencova balances MS diagnosis, basketball career

Fernandez said Jordao will be available this week, giving USF a fully-loaded frontcourt led by 6-foot double-double machine Bethy Mununga (11.2 points per game, 12.7 rebounds per game) and fellow senior Shae Leverett (6.9 rpg, team-best 19 blocks). The perimeter, meantime, is teeming with long-range specialists.

USF’s 136 3-pointers are second-most in the league, behind only Houston (145), which has played three more games. Collectively, the Bulls are shooting 30.2 percent from 3-point range, third-best in the conference.

That type of balance — well-rested balance — could set up a rubber match against the No. 2-seeded Knights in Thursday evening’s conference final.

“Here’s the deal, you’ve got to win three games in three days,” Fernandez said. “I like our depth for those first two games. Against Central Florida, you’ve got to play a little different.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

American Athletic Conference women’s tournament

(at Fort Worth, Texas)

Monday — No. 9 Wichita State vs. No. 8 Tulsa, 2:30; No. 10 Memphis vs. No. 7 Cincinnati, 5:30

Tuesday — No. 5 Temple vs. No. 4 Tulane, noon; Wichita State/Tulsa winner vs. No. 1 USF, 3; Memphis/Cincinnati winner vs. No. 2 UCF, 7; No. 6 East Carolina vs. No. 3 Houston, 10

Wednesday — Semifinals, 5:30 and 8:30

Thursday — Final, 10

All games on ESPN+ except final, which will be televised on ESPNU.