TAMPA — A trip to the Sweet 16 of the WNIT tournament had been the consolation prize for the University of South Florida women's basketball team, which is still getting over being left out of the NCAA tournament's field of 64.
Make that the Elite Eight for the Bulls, who battled through a slow start and came away with a 74-59 victory against George Washington on Thursday night at the Sun Dome.
“I thought we did a really good job defensively in the first half,” said USF coach Jose Fernandez, whose team will face Mississippi State on the road at 6 p.m. Sunday in the quarterfinals.
“It came down to the glass and how we rebounded. Good win for our guys, and now three down and eight teams left. Everybody that you play now has had a great year.”
The Bulls (22-12) didn't look comfortable offensively at the beginning, starting 0-for-5 from the field.
USF began to find its groove midway through the first half with point guard Courtney Williams, who recorded her 10th double-double of the season with 24 points and 12 assists, the initiator.
The senior scored 16 points in the first half, including hitting four shots in a row.
By halftime, the Bulls walked into their locker room with a 35-19 lead and had only five turnovers.
USF's length bothered George Washington, with the Colonials shooting 22-of-69 (31.9 percent) and committing 14 turnovers.
USF's Inga Orekhova was held scoreless in the first half but came alive in the second, scoring 14 points and finishing with nine rebounds and seven assists.
“My shots weren't falling, but I was doing everything else,” Orekohva said. “I was like, I have to step up for my teammates because my team needs me. I just got in a rhythm.”
George Washington (23-11) did not go down quietly, though, as the Colonials chipped away at USF's seemingly insurmountable lead throughout the second half.
The Colonials cut the Bulls' lead to 61-55 with a little less than 4 minutes remaining.
But six points was as close as George Washington would get down the stretch, as Orekhova knocked down a few crucial buckets to keep USF in the lead by double digits.
USF made a conscious effort to crash the boards on the offensive end, with 21 of 56 rebounds coming off a missed shot.