TAMPA — They mingled Sunday evening with several-dozen boosters in a Yuengling Center club area before taking their seats in front of the arena’s video board and observing their annual rite of spring.
Or more specifically, slight of spring.
Once again, the USF women’s basketball team (26-6) found themselves on the bleak side of bracketology. Four days after a stunning quarterfinal loss in the American Athletic Conference tournament, the Bulls were relegated to a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tourney and will open play Friday against Marquette (21-10), a No. 9 seed, in Columbia, South Carolina.
If they win, they’re a lock to face undefeated reigning national champ South Carolina — on the Gamecocks’ home floor.
“You know what, I don’t think we controlled what we needed to control the last 2½ weeks of the season,” said veteran coach Jose Fernandez, who has led the Bulls to nine NCAA berths and seven in the last eight seasons (excluding the COVID-shortened 2019-20 season). “So we deserved to be seeded where we got seeded.”
The AAC regular-season champions, the Bulls seemed destined for a higher seed until a two-point home loss to Houston on Feb. 12 and the 65-53 upset defeat to Wichita State last week in Fort Worth, Texas.
Still, their appearance on the No. 8 line caught experts off guard. Veteran ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme pegged the Bulls as a 7 seed opening play in Storrs, Connecticut.
Moreover, USF’s 26 victories are more than any other 8 or 7 seed in the tournament. Its non-conference triumphs include wins against NCAA Tournament qualifiers Alabama (a 10 seed) and Texas (a 4 seed); the losses include a two-point overtime defeat to Ohio State (a 3 seed).
The Bulls finished 15-1 in conference play in the regular season.
“Probably 2½ weeks ago we’re looking at probably a 6 seed,” Fernandez said.
“This was the 10th year of that (AAC) tournament, and we’ve played for the championship six times. The other three times we’ve lost in the semifinal. It was the only time we’ve ever been bounced in that first round. It happens, it’s part of sports, it wasn’t our night. We didn’t play well, we didn’t coach well. Apparently, I didn’t do a good enough job preparing those guys.”
The silver lining to that early exit: The Bulls arrive in Columbia as one of the most well-rested teams in the nation, having played only twice so far in March. They’re also familiar with Colonial Life Arena, having played an NCAA Tournament game (a 12-point loss to Miami) in that building last season.
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“We all know that we didn’t have a good game (against Wichita),” said senior guard Elena Tsineke, the conference’s co-player of the year with teammate Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu.
“It was a bad day, and I think it made us all hungry and ready to respond. Our practices are different; we work harder, we want it more. So sometimes things happen for a reason, and we’re here to respond.”
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls
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