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USF women hold off UCF to win American Athletic Conference tournament

The victory gives the program its first league tournament crown, and an automatic NCAA bid.
USF guard Sydni Harvey celebrates after making a 3-pointer during the second half of the American Athletic Conference tournament final Thursday night. Harvey had 18 first-half points.
USF guard Sydni Harvey celebrates after making a 3-pointer during the second half of the American Athletic Conference tournament final Thursday night. Harvey had 18 first-half points. [ TONY GUTIERREZ ]
Published Mar. 12
Updated Mar. 12

A program once bereft of conference hardware suddenly is basking in it.

Buoyed by a scorching first-half shooting touch that offset a lengthy second-half funk, the top-seeded Bulls (18-3) pulled out a 64-54 victory against the No. 2-seeded Knights in the American Athletic Conference tournament final Thursday in Fort Worth, Texas.

The triumph gave USF its first league tournament crown only nine days after it clinched the program’s first regular-season conference title — also against the Knights — in Tampa. The 20th-ranked Bulls learn their NCAA Tournament fate during Monday evening’s selection show.

They’re a No. 7 seed in ESPN women’s bracketologist Charlie Creme’s latest tournament projection.

“I couldn’t have been prouder of these guys,” said coach Jose Fernandez, whose team endured a one-month layoff earlier this winter due to coronavirus issues in the league.

“We didn’t play our best basketball the first two days, and I thought we set the tone early by the way that we got out and scored in transition. We made extra passes and we made shots. I couldn’t be prouder of our kids and their resiliency on a neutral floor.”

Frigid from 3-point range (14-for-56) in their first two tournament games, the Bulls went 8-for-11 (72.7 percent) in the first half Thursday en route to a 37-19 lead at intermission.

The prime beneficiary of USF’s crisp ball movement: junior Sydni Harvey, who hit only three of 15 3-point tries in the previous two tournament contests but went 5-for-6 in the first half and had 18 of her 22 points by intermission. Harvey was named the tournament’s most outstanding player.

Defensively, the Bulls forced 10 first-half turnovers and limited the Knights — whose rotation includes a pair of 6-foot-3 low-post players — to three offensive rebounds.

“They came with a lot of energy. They played the way they wanted to play,” UCF coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson said. “Harvey was amazing for them — amazing.”

Harvey’s sixth 3-pointer of the night gave the Bulls a 51-27 lead midway through the third, but UCF (16-4) answered with a 12-0 run to end the quarter. The Bulls went scoreless the final 5:24 of the period, committing three turnovers in that span.

The Knights then scored the first six points of the final quarter before Elisa Pinzan’s two free throws ended UCF’s 18-0 surge. Elena Tsineke’s layup with 5:47 to go snapped a Bulls field goal drought of more than 11½ minutes.

That gave the Bulls a 55-47 lead. UCF would get no closer, managing only two field goals — both layups — in the final 9:06.

Tsineke led USF with 23 points and hit all five of her free throws to lead a 17-for-18 team effort from the free-throw line. Six-foot senior Bethy Mununga had 16 rebounds to finish the tournament with 49, a tourney record.

“I’m so happy for these kids and everything that they’ve gone through all year long,” Fernandez said. “They left no doubt today.”

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