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Late-season surge lifts USF women into NCAA Tournament

The ninth-seeded Bulls will open play Friday against eighth-seeded Miami in Columbia, S.C.
USF center Shae Leverett, from left, Elisa Pinzan, and Sydni Harvey (3) celebrate after a basket against UCF during the AAC women's basketball tournament championship game Thursday in Fort Worth, Texas. USF qualified for the NCAA Tournament as a No. 8 seed.
USF center Shae Leverett, from left, Elisa Pinzan, and Sydni Harvey (3) celebrate after a basket against UCF during the AAC women's basketball tournament championship game Thursday in Fort Worth, Texas. USF qualified for the NCAA Tournament as a No. 8 seed. [ TONY GUTIERREZ | AP ]
Published Mar. 14|Updated Mar. 14

TAMPA — After a strong surge over the past few weeks, the USF women’s basketball team is headed to the NCAA Tournament for the eighth time in program history and seventh in the past nine seasons (not counting 2019-20, when the postseason was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The Bulls (24-8) enter the tournament as a No. 9 seed and will open play against eighth-seeded Miami (20-12) Friday at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, S.C., at a time to be announced.

The news was satisfying to USF coach Jose Fernandez, who after a 21-point loss to UCF on Feb. 13 basically told his players they better start winning if they wanted to return to the big dance.

The Bulls followed with seven straight victories before falling to UCF, 53-45, in a hard-fought battle in Thursday’s AAC tournament final.

“I think the (NCAA selection committee) looked at our body of work this season and at what we did in November (victories over then top-10 ranked Stanford and Oregon),” Fernandez said. “I told our young ladies that I am very excited for them, because they earned it.”

The USF-Miami winner likely will face top overall seed South Carolina (29-2) in the second round on Sunday. South Carolina opens with the winner of the play-in game between No. 16 seeds Howard and Incarnate Word on Friday.

But first things first for the Bulls, who will get to work right away scouting Miami, which lost to North Carolina State, 60-47, in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament title game on March 6.

“We know that Miami has a lot of international kids (nine) and they are well coached,” Fernandez said of the Hurricanes, who hold an all-time 27-11 series lead over the Bulls, though the teams have met sporadically over the years. “We know they do a good job down there.”

The highest the USF women ever have been seeded for the NCAA tournament is sixth (2015, ‘16 and ‘18).

Last year, the Bulls earned a No. 8 seed and won an opening-round game over Washington State (57-53) before falling in the second round to North Carolina State, 79-67.

Gators to open with Knights

Florida (21-10) received a No. 10 seed and will meet seventh-seeded UCF (25-3) in a first-round game Saturday in Storrs, Conn.

The Gators are 25-0 all-time against the Knights, but the teams have never met in the postseason.

Eleventh seeds Florida State (17-13) and Missouri State (24-7) will meet in a play-in game Thursday in Baton Rouge, La., with the winner advancing to play sixth-seeded Ohio State (23-6) in the first round on Saturday.

It marks the ninth straight NCAA Tournament appearance for the Seminoles.

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