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Solid NCAA resume in hand, USF women still leaving nothing to chance

An early loss in the AAC tourney just might put the Bulls on the bubble.
USF coach Jose Fernandez's team enters this week's American Athletic Conference tournament on a season-best five-game win streak.
USF coach Jose Fernandez's team enters this week's American Athletic Conference tournament on a season-best five-game win streak. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Mar. 6

TAMPA — Shortly after his team’s most complete performance of the calendar year, USF’s Jose Fernandez conveyed the tone of a coach whose squad resides securely in the NCAA bracket, not on the bubble.

“There’s no question,” Fernandez said Wednesday evening after watching the Bulls women roll to a 71-38 rout of Houston. “It would be a travesty if we wouldn’t be in (the 64-team field).”

Fernandez, whose team (22-7) heads to the American Athletic Conference tournament on a five-game win streak, has the metrics to fortify his sentiment.

USF is 41st in the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) rankings, the primary gauge used to evaluate NCAA Tournament candidates. Its strength of schedule is ranked 21st nationally by realtimerpi.com. The Bulls own victories against reigning national champ Stanford and Oregon, third and 12th in the NET rankings, respectively.

“I’d say we definitely deserve it,” sophomore scoring leader Elena Tsineke said.

Yet Fernandez has been spurned by the selection committee before, more than once. Hence the reason he and his club head to Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas, intent on leaving nothing to chance.

“We can’t go to the conference tournament and go lay an egg the first round,” he said.

Fortunately for Fernandez, his team’s brimming potential finally was hatched against Houston. Mostly miserable from long range (29.1 percent) all season entering the game, the Bulls hit six of 11 3-pointers and finished 50 percent (27 of 54) from the floor overall, their second-best shooting night of the season.

They also forced 17 turnovers, tying a season-high in conference play.

“It’s a lot easier when you get rewarded for your defense on the other end,” Fernandez said. “Where in the past we were just defending and defending and grinding and defending and rebounding and not getting your return on the other end. And (Wednesday night) we got the return.”

If they can replicate that performance in Fort Worth, the second-seeded Bulls will position themselves for a third crack at rival and top seed UCF, which embarrassed them by double digits twice in the regular season. Facing the Knights in the finals would mean their win streak had reached seven games, providing a final flourish to their NCAA resume.

Presumably. Fernandez still agonizes over his 2007 team that won 20 regular-season games, and the 2009 club that won 22. Neither were chosen for the NCAA field; the 2009 team ultimately won the WNIT championship.

“We’ve been on the wrong side of the bubble four times,” Fernandez said. “But I think we’ve controlled what we can control. We went out and scheduled one of the best schedules in the entire country. We challenged this group, and they did what they were supposed to.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

AAC women’s basketball tournament

Where: at Dickies Arena; Fort Worth, Texas

When: Monday-Thursday (Schedule at this link)

USF’s draw: Bulls get a first-round bye, face the East Carolina-Memphis winner Tuesday at 7 p.m.

TV: All games on ESPN+ except Thursday’s 9 p.m. final, which will air on ESPNU

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