As fortitude goes, they were a No. 1 seed.
While USF coach Jose Fernandez fought off the flu, veteran assistant Danny Hughes also coached in the Bulls’ opening-round NCAA Tournament game Sunday night despite having his gall bladder removed the day before.
“We’re tough around here,” Fernandez said Monday.
But as Tuesday afternoon lingered, the team overflowing with pluck ran out of proficiency. And fouls to give.
Unable to build on a surreal, scorching opening half, the No. 8-seeded Bulls (19-4) fell to North Carolina State, 79-67 in a second-round game at the Alamodome in San Antonio.
The defeat ended a breathtaking, bittersweet season that included the program’s first conference regular season and tournament titles, as well as a one-month layoff due to coronavirus precautions.
“I couldn’t be prouder of this group,” Fernandez said.
“This has been a tough year for all student-athletes all around the country, so for us to have the type of year we had ... I’m proud to be their coach, and now they can have some time off.”
Seeking their first Sweet 16 appearance in seven NCAA tourney trips, the Bulls had to settle for one profound consolation: They outplayed the top-seeded Wolfpack (22-2) for 20 tantalizing minutes.
After missing six of its first seven shots, USF quickly found its long-range touch, hitting its last four 3-pointers of the opening quarter to cut N.C. State’s lead to 19-18. All five of the Bulls’ first-quarter field goals were 3-pointers.
They kept the pressure on in the second quarter courtesy of their bench, which finished the game with 15 total points and six total rebounds. With the Wolfpack ratcheting up their perimeter defense and low-post starters Bethy Mununga and Shae Leverett sidelined by two fouls each, USF found production elsewhere.
A mid-range jump shot from 6-foot-2 backup Tereza Vitulova off a turnover tied the score at 32. A driving layup by guard Elisa Pinzan gave USF a 34-32 lead. After point guard Raina Perez’s 3-pointer on the other end, 6-1 reserve Cristina Bermejo answered with a jumper to give the Bulls a 36-35 halftime edge.
“I would say that’s who we are,” Pinzan said. “We got stops on defense ... we ran in transition, we made easy layups, we found the right guys for (the) open shot. I think that’s just who we are.”
The momentum dissipated at intermission.
USF went 4-for-19 from the floor in the third quarter as N.C. State — which shot 50 percent in the same span — built a 59-47 lead. Midway through the period, Mununga and Leverett each had picked up their fourth foul.
They finished with a combined two points and 15 rebounds in 40 total minutes.
“It’s unfortunate they got into foul trouble, but we’re not here if it wasn’t for them,” Fernandez said. “Sometimes guys are not going to have good games, but I tell you what, they’ve had a lot more good ones than bad ones.”
The Bulls made a final surge down the stretch, getting a Pinzan layup and pull-up jumper from Elena Tsineke on consecutive possessions to cut their deficit to 68-60. N.C. State responded with an interior basket by 6-5 junior Elissa Cunane and 3-pointer by Jakia Brown-Turner to essentially seal things.
Tsineke’s 22 points led the Bulls, who shot 27.8 percent (10-for-36) from the floor in the second half and hit only three of 14 3-pointers after intermission. Brown-Turner’s 19 points led the Wolfpack, who put five players in double figures.
“They can hopefully enjoy being a college student as much as they can, finish off the spring semester,” said Fernandez, whose 10-player rotation Tuesday included seven foreign-born players.
“A lot of our kids need to go home and see their families. I think they’ve represented the University of South Florida and the City of Tampa in a great way.”
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.