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USF women embrace challenging schedule, move up in rankings

After knocking off two top-10 teams last week, and edging closer to UConn, the Bulls are now 13th in the country.
Sydni Harvey and the USF basketball team are riding high after wins last week against two top-10 teams.
Sydni Harvey and the USF basketball team are riding high after wins last week against two top-10 teams. [ ERIC GAY | Associated Press ]
Published Nov. 30, 2021

TAMPA — The USF women’s basketball program just finished one of the most impressive weeks of any sports team in the 65-year history of the school — and the Bulls promise more great stuff is coming.

The biggest single victory in the stretch, and arguably in program history, came Friday in Nassau, Bahamas, against then-No. 7 Stanford at the Baha Mar Pink Flamingo Championship.

That’s where coach Jose Fernandez drew up a play for guard Sydni Harvey with nine seconds remaining and USF trailing by two. Fernandez’s final words before the Bulls took the floor were: “Sydni Harvey for the win.”

The ball swung around and kicked out to Harvey, who jumped high and let it fly from about 25 feet. It sailed on an extra-steep arc and swished through the rim — nothing but net.

In the game’s remaining 2.8 seconds, Stanford turned the ball over and USF guard Elisa Pinzan sank two free throws to seal a 57-54 victory over the defending national champion Cardinal.

“(Fernandez) called the play for me so he obviously had confidence in me and I had confidence in myself,” Harvey said Tuesday. “I’ve watched the replay (of the winning shot) now too many times to count. What a great feeling it is.”

While Harvey did lead the Bulls with 15 points in that game, she was far from the only star. There was guard Elena Tsineke with 14 points and Pinzan with 11 points and six assists, and forward Bethy Mununga with a whopping 23 rebounds and six points.

The unselfish team performance was representative of how they played throughout a six-day stay in the Bahamas, which included a 77-53 victory over Syracuse, a nail-biting 60-53 loss to then-No. 2 UConn (marking the first time the Bulls lost by fewer than 10 points to the Huskies) and a 71-62 victory over then-No. 9 Oregon.

As a result, USF (5-2) finds itself ranked at No. 13 in the nation this week. If not for a last-second 52-49 loss at No. 16 Tennessee on Nov. 15, the Bulls no doubt would have jumped into the top 10.

More importantly, Pinzan said, “It helps us understand that we can beat any team in the country.”

The momentum for the victory over Stanford (4-1) was set up four days earlier with the victory over Oregon, a game in which Pinzan went 8-for-8 from the free-throw line in the final 27 seconds. When she sank the final one with five seconds remaining, she turned to her teammates and jokingly said, “Easy peasy.”

USF forward Bethy Mununga (20) and UConn forward Dorka Juhasz (14) fight for the ball during a Nov. 21 game in Nassau, Bahamas.
USF forward Bethy Mununga (20) and UConn forward Dorka Juhasz (14) fight for the ball during a Nov. 21 game in Nassau, Bahamas. [ DONALD KNOWLES | Bahamas Visual Services via Associated Press ]

“We shoot 50 free throws at the end of every practice and I’ll make 46 or 47 or so,” said Pinzan, who led all scorers with 26 points against Oregon. “I just thought about shooting them just like I do in practice.”

Like Pinzan’s foul shooting, Fernandez believes his team was prepared for this season’s tough schedule and the inevitable tight moments it might create.

“You have to embrace these challenges,” Fernandez said. “I think the team got the schedule they deserved and now they have to live up to it.”

That means preserving momentum through the rest of the season, which he said means focusing on the next game Thursday night at University of Texas Arlington (4-2). After UT Arlington, USF will play Sunday at Virginia Commonwealth (3-2).

If the Bulls win both of those games, Fernandez will go for his 400th career victory at home Dec. 15 against Stetson (4-3).

When asked if a top-10 ranking might be achievable for the Bulls, Fernandez said it would be great for publicity, but the focus must remain on the tasks directly in front of them.

“The polls are great, they generate excitement,” Fernandez said. “But the NCAA doesn’t look at the rankings. … (The NCAA Tournament) is still a long way off. We still have a lot of work to do to get where we want to be.”

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