USF steamrolls Houston, stays hot heading into conference tourney

The Bulls win their fifth straight, clinch the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the AAC women’s tournament, and strengthen their NCAA case.
USF's Elena Tsineke drives to the basket Wednesday during the Bulls' 71-38 victory over Houston.
USF's Elena Tsineke drives to the basket Wednesday during the Bulls' 71-38 victory over Houston. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published March 3, 2022

TAMPA — The USF women’s basketball team routed Houston 71-38 Wednesday night, finishing off its regular season with a five-game winning streak and a resounding exclamation point at the Yuengling Center.

It was, as Bulls coach Jose Fernandez said, “a great way to head into the (American Athletic Conference) tournament.”

One of the most encouraging signs was USF’s deft shooting touch, which had been missing in several games through February.

On Wednesday, the Bulls shot 50 percent from the field (27-of-54), 54.5 from 3-point range (6-of-11) and 84.6 from the free-throw line (11-of-13) — much better than their season averages of .381 from the field, .291 from 3-point land and .707 on free throws.

“That was us,” Fernandez said. “That’s what we used to do. We made extra passes, we shared it well, we kept them in front us. We shot it well. I’m really happy for the team to be able to finish this season the way they did.”

USF (22-7, 11-3 AAC) clinched a No. 2 seed and a first-round bye for the AAC tournament, which begins Monday in Fort Worth, Texas. The Bulls play at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the quarterfinals against the East Carolina-Memphis winner.

Fernandez said his team’s strong finish also should earn it a decent seed in the NCAA Tournament. It would be USF’s eighth trip to the NCAA Tournament, all coming in Fernandez’s 22 seasons as coach.

“I think we’ve done what we were supposed to do,” he said. “We’ve won games (against a tough schedule). I don’t think I have to politic for this team (regarding an NCAA berth). I think they’ve earned it.”

Wednesday’s positive energy steadily flowed from a brief opening ceremony where four seniors — forwards Bethy Mununga and Shae Leverett, and guards Sydni Harvey and Elisa Pinzan — were honored for their careers.

Mununga then went out against the Cougars (14-14, 7-9) and scored 16 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, giving her 12 double doubles on the season, including 10 in her past 15 games.

“I think tonight was good for everybody,” said Mununga, who has 32 double doubles for her career. “We really felt a great energy. When we finished, (junior guard Elena Tsineke) said she was missing playing with this kind of team. It just felt really good to play the way we did tonight.”

Tsineke, who led all scorers with 18 that pushed her to 1,008 points for her career, said the game, “really showed who we are.”

In the first half, USF played about as well as it has at any point this season, shooting 61.3 percent from the field and 71.4 percent from long range. At halftime, the Bulls’ lead was 49-16 en route to their first dominating victory in more than a month.

There was a moment of concern for USF when guard Maria Alvarez was carried off the floor after colliding with a Houston player on a drive during the fourth quarter. Alvarez, who was 3-for-3 on 3-pointers and finished with 14 points, is scheduled to have an MRI exam on her knee Thursday morning, Fernandez said.

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