TAMPA — The University of South Florida women’s basketball team is on the verge of securing its second straight at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
The No. 3-seeded Bulls (18-11, 13-5) must make a strong statement in the American Athletic Conference tournament, where the No. 6 Temple Owls await in tonight’s quarterfinals at Uncasville, Conn.
“I’m very confident,” USF sophomore forward Alisia Jenkins said.
That sentiment wasn’t universally shared in December, when the Bulls stumbled to a 5-7 start, chiefly because of youth and a proliferation of injuries.
“This team never wavered, even when our record wasn’t what everybody thought it should be,’’ USF coach Jose Fernandez said. “Without a doubt, if you would’ve told me on Jan. 1 that we’d be 5-7, I would’ve said, ‘You’re crazy.’
“We needed to improve our conditioning. We needed to improve our play at point guard. We continued to teach and practice and prepare like the type of team we should be. And we got it turned around.’’
Bulls sophomore guard Courtney Williams remembers a clear turning point in December.
“The coaching staff turned this around,’’ Williams said. “One (road) game we got back and went straight to the gym. We were there until 11 o’clock or 12 o’clock. The coaches were saying, ‘We’re playing selfish basketball. Everybody wants to play individually. We have to make it a team thing.’
“Everybody’s attitudes had to go out the window. We had to make it a team thing. We were all in it and we had to do this together.’’
The Bulls have played much better down the stretch, losing only to Connecticut and Louisville, while clinching the tournament’s No. 3 seed with a road upset against Rutgers on Monday night.
Fernandez believes the NCAA selection committee will consider USF’s injuries as a factor for the slow start. He also said third place in the AAC — led by top-five teams in UConn and Louisville — is a major accomplishment.
But the Bulls must have a strong conference tournament showing.
“Beating Rutgers doesn’t mean anything if we don’t follow it up with some more wins,’’ Fernandez said.
USF senior guard Inga Orekhova, who had a breakout performance in last season’s NCAA tournament, when the Bulls nearly made the Sweet 16, said she’s a bit nervous.
“You don’t want to be that team that’s going to be on the bubble and not making it to the tournament,’’ Orekhova said. “We just have to win some games.’’