TAMPA — Should they outlast the ACC tournament runnerup Friday, the nation’s reigning juggernaut awaits. For all their savvy and senior leadership, USF’s women at some point this weekend likely will find themselves overmatched.
But not overwhelmed. Not a chance.
If nothing else, the Bulls — who played one of the nation’s toughest schedules this season — know all about facing elite competition at a hostile or neutral site.
“We have played big teams in the past, so another great team wouldn’t be a problem for us,” third-year sophomore guard and leading scorer Elena Tsineke said. “We’re going to try to do our best, we’re going to do it together, so that’s not an issue.”
Going by the final NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) rankings, Miami (20-12), which faces USF in Friday’s NCAA Tournament opener in Columbia, S.C., is only the seventh-best foe on the Bulls’ slate. At No. 42 in the NET, the Hurricanes fall behind prior Bulls opponents Stanford (third), Connecticut (fourth), Oregon (12th), Tennessee (18th), UCF (15th) and Ole Miss (24th).
USF defeated Stanford and Oregon within a week in separate events in the Bahamas.
“That’s why we scheduled the way we did in the beginning of the season,” senior guard Sydni Harvey said, “just so we’d be ready for the NCAA Tournament.”
It’s a strategy borne of necessity. Few coaches annually assemble a non-conference schedule as formidable as Fernandez, who needs quality opposition (and wins) in November and December to fortify his team’s tournament resume. That need became more glaring once Connecticut left the American Athletic Conference, which this year received only two NCAA bids.
“I think in this day in age, if you’re not in a football five, per se, conference, and ... if you don’t schedule the right way in November and December, you’re not going to be considered for an at-large bid,” Fernandez said.
“When the (selection) committee gets in that room, they’re going to look at, ‘OK, how do you schedule?’ I believe when it was all said and done, we had the 20th-strongest schedule in the country (16th per realtimerpi.com). Our non-conference schedule was really, really strong.”
Toss in the collective experience of Fernandez’s roster, and USF arrived in Columbia with a club not only tested, but seasoned.
Eight Bulls players have appeared in at least 70 college games. Seven of the nine players who appeared in last year’s NCAA Tournament first-round win against Washington State — including all five starters — remain on the roster.
“I’d be surprised if we would be (overwhelmed),” Fernandez said. “I mean, you’ve got five guys that played a lot of minutes in last year’s NCAA tournament against Washington State and (the second round) against N.C. State.”
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That veteran core will pursue history this weekend. If the Bulls advance to the second round, where top-seeded South Carolina almost certainly awaits, they’d have a chance to become the first eight- or nine-seed to upset a No. 1 seed in the women’s tournament since 2009.
First, they must weather the Hurricanes, who have won eight of their last 10, including upsets of fourth-ranked Louisville and No. 20 Notre Dame in the ACC tournament. Miami allowed none of its four tourney opponents to score more than 61 points, and held third-ranked North Carolina State to 60 — 16 below its season average — in a 13-point loss in the final.
“I think they do a great job not allowing the ball to get into the paint,” said Fernandez, who leans heavily on the low-post tandem of 6-foot senior Bethy Mununga (10.7 ppg, 11.6 rpg) and 6-4 senior Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu (10.5 ppg, 7.1 rpg)
“When the ball goes inside, they do a good job of doubling and rotating out. It’s nothing easy. I don’t know how much fun the game’s going to be to watch, but I think you’re going to see two good teams that defend and rebound.”
NCAA women’s tournament
Who: No. 9 seed Miami (20-12) vs. No. 8 USF (24-8)
Where: Colonial Life Arena; Columbia, S.C.
When: Friday, 11:30 a.m.
Audio: Bulls Unlimited (iHeartRadio/GoUSFBulls.com)
Winner faces: Howard/South Carolina winner on Sunday (time TBD)
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls
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