They arrived in Texas around noon Tuesday, remained confined almost exclusively to their team hotel over the next five days, and didn’t take the court for their NCAA Tournament opener until late Sunday.
Which is to say, the USF women’s occupancy of the 2020-21 bracket already had seemed like an eternity before their first tip-off.
Eternity has been extended.
Bent on proving they’re far more formidable than the No. 8 seed they were designated, the Bulls enjoyed a scorching second quarter and survived an unsightly second half to eke out a 57-53 win against ninth-seeded Washington State at Frank Erwin Center in Austin, Texas.
“Right now, it was about finding a way to win and executing out of timeouts, and doing the right things,” USF coach Jose Fernandez said. “And I’m just really proud of these guys.”
The victory came five years ― almost to the day — after USF’s most recent NCAA Tournament triumph (March 19, 2016 vs. Colorado State). The Bulls (19-3) face top-seeded North Carolina State on Tuesday in the round 32 at a time and site to be determined.
USF led 54-53 when Cougars senior Krystal Leger-Walker forced a steal in the Bulls backcourt with 43 seconds remaining, giving possession to Washington State (12-12). Her sister, Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Charlisse Leger-Walker (team-high 18 points), was whistled for traveling seven seconds later.
Elisa Pinzan hit two free throws with 25.9 seconds to play, giving the Bulls a three-point lead. Charlisse Leger-Walker missed a contested layup with 12 seconds remaining, and Bulls guard Sydni Harvey hit the second of two free throws two seconds later to seal it.
Befitting teams bound to hotels for a nearly a week, the Bulls and Cougars began sluggishly, going a combined 9-for-37 from the floor in the first quarter.
But USF found its groove in short order.
The Bulls hit their first six shots of the second quarter during a 14-4 run and finished 11-for-16 from the floor (68.8 percent) in the period en route to a 38-29 lead. Sophomore Elena Tsineke, who missed her only three shots of the first quarter, opened the second with seven consecutive points and scored 12 in the quarter.
“I came here to give everything,” said Tsineke, a 5-foot-7 Greece native who led the Bulls with 18 points.
“I had to be ready anyway; it’s March Madness. Everybody’s got to give their best play in this sport. This is what really gets me going, it’s my mindset, because ... there’s no way back. You’ve got to just give everything you’ve got, and then it’s over. You have to get something out of it.”
The collective shooting stroke vanished at intermission.
USF managed only three third-quarter field goals and committed three turnovers in the first 1:13 of the period. The Cougars opened the half with a 9-1 run and rallied to tie the score at 45 entering the fourth.
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“That third quarter, we got some pretty good shots, they just didn’t fall,” Fernandez said. “The difference was we had three turnovers in the first 20 minutes and then the first four minutes of that third quarter, we had three or four turnovers, and that got them back in the game.”
The Bulls totaled six field goals in the second half, finishing 1-for-7 from long range in the last 20 minutes. The Cougars couldn’t capitalize, however, hitting only nine second-half field goals of their own.
Six-foot senior Bethy Mununga finished with six points and 11 rebounds for the Bulls. Fellow forward Shae Leverett had eight points and six rebounds, hitting all four of her shots.
“It’s great to get a win, we’re one of the final 32 teams in the country,” Fernandez said. “We have an opportunity to play on Tuesday. I’m really excited for another COVID test (Monday) and another one on Tuesday. Hopefully more COVID tests after that.”