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Shorthanded USF women rally late to edge Tulsa

The Bulls, dealing with injuries and COVID-19 protocol issues, get a season-high 30 points from Elena Tsineke and strong bench play.
USF's Elena Tsineke drives to the basket for a layup past Tulsa's Maddie Bittle on Wednesday at the Yuengling Center.
USF's Elena Tsineke drives to the basket for a layup past Tulsa's Maddie Bittle on Wednesday at the Yuengling Center. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Jan. 20|Updated Jan. 20

TAMPA — It took awhile Wednesday night, but the injury-riddled USF women’s basketball team finally found enough answers in the fourth quarter to pull out a 66-63 come-from-behind win over visiting Tulsa.

It was a victory that didn’t make Bulls coach Jose Fernandez exactly happy, because he couldn’t help but worry about his team’s overall health.

Fernandez’s postgame wellness report began with a question mark for American Athletic Conference rebound leader Bethy Mununga, who has nursed a sore Achilles the past week and only played 20 minutes Wednesday, almost none in the second half.

Mununga, averaging 11.4 rebounds a game, had just seven rebounds and two points before taking a seat for good with 7:34 left in the third quarter.

Fernandez also said guard Maria Alvarez might have suffered a concussion midway through the second quarter. Alvarez scored two points and played just over five minutes.

Then there was more news from Fernandez on the health report:

“We also got hit by COVID (in the last month). We had a lot of guys who didn’t practice because of COVID, a lot of guys coming back from COVID. Mununga and (starting guard) Sydni Harvey didn’t practice the last two days with injuries (Fernandez wouldn’t specify Harvey’s injury).

“When you don’t have guys practicing, you lose flow, you lose feel. And that’s where we’re at. We’re trying to find ways to hang in there and get it done. It’s all we can do right now.”

USF struggled through the first 20 minutes and trailed 36-31 at halftime. With 3:19 remaining in the third, the Bulls (13-5, 3-1 AAC) found themselves even further in a hole, 51-41, before they finally mounted a comeback.

The keys included guard Elena Tsineke’s season-high 30 points, forward Dulcy Mendjiadeu Fankam’s 17 points and 11 rebounds, and some stiffer overall defense. It also included stepped-up play from reserves, such as forward Cristina Bermejo (season-high 22 minutes, nine rebounds, seven points) and guard Mihaela Lazic (a key free throw in final seconds).

USF finally regained the lead, 56-54, after an 8-0 run with 4:43 remaining.

From there, the Golden Hurricane (12-3, 2-2) and the Bulls traded the lead a couple of times before Tsineke sank a pair of free throws for a 64-63 lead. Tulsa had a last-second 3-pointer that rimmed out and was rebounded by Bermejo.

“Fortunately we were able to go to our bench and get some good minutes out of them,” Fernandez said. “It’s a credit to our bench.”

The big question is can USF get healthy enough to climb back into the nation’s top 25 and get a decent seed in the NCAA Tournament?

In November, the Bulls reached No. 13 after defeating defending national champion Stanford, then No. 9 Oregon in the same week.

But USF lost 67-51 to UCF on Sunday and fell out of the top 25 and into the status of teams also receiving votes in the Associated Press poll.

“We just have to find a way to get this done moving forward,” Fernandez said. “That’s simply what we have to do.”

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