Friday began with an extended funk for USF’s women. The Bulls’ best guard couldn’t find her groove, and their center couldn’t find an open look. Collectively, their shooting touch seemed colder than a Clint Eastwood stare.
But in a wild scenario befitting March, the malaise transitioned to madness.
“We tried not to make it too exciting,” veteran Bulls coach Jose Fernandez quipped.
Down by as many as 11 in the second half, the No. 8-seeded Bulls (27-6) rallied for a 67-65 overtime win against No. 9 Marquette in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament in Columbia, South Carolina. American Athletic Conference co-Player of the Year Elena Tsineke — held to two first-half points — hit a short jumper with 30 seconds to play to give her team a 66-65 lead.
The other co-player of the year, Bulls 6-foot-4 senior Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu, sank the second of two free throws with seven seconds to play and finished with her 24th double double (22 points, 16 rebounds) of the season.
Marquette’s final attempt, a 3-point try by freshman Mackenzie Hare, rimmed out. The Golden Eagles, who upset Connecticut at home in February, finished 2-of-13 from the floor in the fourth quarter.
“With us offensively not playing (well), and shooting the ball unlike we usually shoot it, I’m really proud of our kids, the plays we made defensively at the end of the game to finish it off,” said Fernandez, whose club faces undefeated reigning national champ South Carolina at 1 p.m. on Sunday (TV: ABC) at Colonial Life Arena.
“It’s what March Madness is all about because your next game could be your last one for the season.”
Most of Friday’s game seemed the Bulls’ benediction.
More than 15 minutes into the contest, USF had more turnovers (seven) than field goals, and had only one assist at halftime, when it trailed 32-27.
Tsineke had two points and two turnovers at that point, periodically trying to do too much on the offensive end. Meantime, Fankam Mendjiadeu (six first-half points, four rebounds) struggled to find her rhythm against the Golden Eagles’ low-post double teams.
Fankam Mendjiadeu came alive with 11 third-period points as Marquette (21-11) succumbed to foul trouble, but Tsineke went scoreless in the quarter, which ended with Marquette still leading by six.
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“I didn’t want to leave this game without having done nothing for the team for the team to win,” said Tsineke, who finished with 13 points. “So I had to take responsibility.”
Her layup with 1:55 to play in regulation cut Marquette’s lead to two, and her lone 3-pointer of the game with 31 seconds remaining gave the Bulls a 59-55 lead. Marquette senior Jordan King (16 points) hit a pair of free throws 10 seconds later, setting the stage for a breathtaking — and bizarre — finish.
After Marquette gave one of its fouls, Tsineke took an inbounds pass and cradled the ball waiting for an opponent to foul her. Officials ruled Marquette had tied her up instead, giving the Golden Eagles possession. Hare was fouled and made both free throws with three seconds to play, forcing overtime.
The teams exchanged leads three times in the extra session before Tsineke’s jumper with 30 seconds to go.
“Even though (Tsineke) didn’t have the night that she usually has, you’ve got to have a great feel and a great confidence of yourself to step up and want to take those shots,” Fernandez said.
“Some guys, when they’re not playing well, you know what, they freeze up. They stand over there in the corner and they don’t want the ball. And it shows that when the game was on the line, she wanted the ball in her hands.”
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.
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