Playing with the same resolve and determination it has shown for much of the past month, the USF women’s basketball team defeated Houston 58-50 in an American Athletic Conference tournament semifinal Wednesday night in Fort Worth, Texas.
Now for the second straight season and the sixth time in their nine years in the AAC, the Bulls will play in the tournament championship game, which USF won for the first time last year.
The opponent for Thursday’s 9 p.m. tipoff? None other than arch-rival UCF.
The Bulls defeated the Knights in last year’s final but were dominated twice this season. USF has not lost since a 54-33 defeat to UCF on Feb. 13, winning seven straight.
“Our team has been through a lot this season (injuries, coronavirus issues, shooting slumps),” USF coach Jose Fernandez said, “and now I’m thrilled that this team has earned the opportunity to play in the championship game. We look forward to it.”
UCF, ranked No. 25, advanced to the final with a 61-28 thrashing of SMU.
USF (24-7) again struggled to find shooting consistency, converting only 30.4 percent of its shots from the floor (17 of 56) and 22.2 percent (4 of 18) from beyond the 3-point arc.
But as they have done at various times in different games, the Bulls made up for a deficiency in one area by excelling in another.
Fernandez nodded to an overall solid defensive effort, a fantastic night shooting from the free throw line (20 of 22) and some outstanding individual efforts, including Bethy Mununga, who scored eight points and grabbed 18 rebounds while playing all but one minute of the game.
“I take pride in rebounding the ball,” said Mununga, who has 13 double-doubles this season. “I know that’s the one thing I can always contribute.”
Outside of Mununga, four Bulls had eight or more points, including Elisa Pinzan (14), Elena Tsineke (11), Shae Leverett (10) and Sydni Harvey (eight).
Sharp-shooting guard Maria Alvarez, who twisted her ankle in last week’s regular-season finale, took some pregame warmup shots but was unable to play. Fernandez said Alvarez’s status remains “day-to-day.”
Regardless of the results of the previous meetings between the teams this season, Pinzan said she is sure the Bulls will be ready for Thursday’s rematch.
“We may have given up our regular-season title (to UCF), but when we play (Thursday), I know we will be right,” Pinzan said. “I know we will.”
Against sixth-seeded Houston (16-15) second-seeded USF jumped to a quick 10-3 lead before the Cougars clawed back, cutting the gap to 19-18 with 7:52 left in the second quarter.
The Bulls answered with a 13-6 run to close out the first half and never allowed Houston closer than eight points in the second half.
UCF clamps down on SMU
Brittney Smith led a balanced offense with 13 points and No. 25 UCF’s nation-best defense had its best game of the season with a 61-28 win over SMU in the other semifinal.
Going into the game, the top-seeded Knights were allowing 48.1 points per game and held 16 teams under 50 points and seven under 40.
Now they have held one under 30.
Diamond Battles scored 11 points for UCF (24-3), which has won 12 straight. Masseny Kaba and Shania Meertens added 10 each.
The Knights face the winner of the late semifinal between second-seeded USF and sixth-seeded Houston. USF beat UCF in the championship game last year.
Kayla White had a team-high eight points for the Mustangs (14-14), who had their lowest scoring game of the season by shooting a season-low 24.5 percent (12 of 49) with 22 turnovers.
SMU is the seventh team UCF held under 30 percent shooting, the lowest being Temple at 23.1.
The Knights scored the first 11 points of the game, led 15-3 after the first quarter and 28-15 at the half. SMU shot 27 percent, missed all five of its 3-pointers and had 11 turnovers.
SMU shot 21 percent in the second half, and UCF settled the game with a dominating 20-6 third-quarter advantage.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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