UNCASVILLE, Conn., MARCH 5, 2017 – USF is headed to the American Athletic Conference Championship final for the third straight season after knocking off No. 21 Temple, 63-58, Sunday night at Mohegan Sun Arena.
In a rematch of last season’s conference semifinal, third-seeded USF (24-7) earned its best win of the season by getting tough on the glass. Head coach Jose Fernandez’s Bulls ruled the boards by 42-36 margin with 15 offensive rebounds against the second-seeded Owls (24-7).
First team all-conference guard Kitija Laksa (Riga, Latvia) helped the Bulls book a third straight meeting with UConn in the championship with a game-high 18 points. The solid performance helped Laksa break USF’s sophomore season scoring record with 602 total points.
Maria Jespersen (Arhus, Denmark) posted her 11th double-double of the season with 14 points and 13 rebounds. Conference freshman of the year Tamara Henshaw (Palm Coast, Fla.) matched her career high with 15 points.
Laia Flores (Mataro, Spain) added eight points, four rebounds and three assists. Flores is now just three assists shy of breaking USF’s season assists record of 190 set by Anedra Gilmore in 2004-05.
USF headed into halftime with a 33-30 advantage after Laksa made program history and Henshaw proved why she was named conference freshman of the year.
Laksa became the leading sophomore scorer in USF history with a 3-pointer to open the game. Laksa passed Courtney Williams’ previous top mark of 586 points during the 2013-14 season.
Laksa helped fuel a 6-0 run to end the first quarter that cut the Temple lead to 17-14. Henshaw put USF ahead twice during a sequence in the second quarter that saw the lead change hands four times before the Bulls took over.
Jespersen made a go-ahead jumper with 6:27 left in the half and went on her own 7-0 run to pump the Bulls’ lead up to 29-23. Henshaw scored four points down the stretch and finished the second quarter with 11 points. The scoring surge helped the freshman match her previous career high of 15 points by the break.
Jespersen added to her 24th double-digit scoring game of the season with a 3-pointer in the third quarter and a Laksa jumper extended the lead to 42-35. Despite the hot start, USF went on a scoring drought of 5:33 but still headed into the fourth quarter with a 42-39 lead.
USF’s defense held Temple to nine points in the third quarter and kept locking down the Owls on the way to the championship. Temple went through a five-minute scoring drought in the final period and went 7-for-18 from the field.
Senior Nancy Warioba (Kisumu, Kenya) gave the Bulls a needed spark instantly with two points and three rebounds in her first two minutes of the game early in the fourth quarter. After Warioba’s defensive rebound, Flores knocked down a 3-pointer and five straight points from Laksa extended the lead to 52-41 with 4:24 remaining. USF secured the victory by going 9-for-14 from the free throw line in the final period.
Head coach Jose Fernandez’s thoughts on the Bulls making it back to the conference championship:
“I couldn’t be prouder of this group. We played five kids in that first half the entire time. In that third quarter, we were up seven with the ball and we went on a drought there. But in that fourth quarter, we made big shots and we got the stops we needed. It was an important game for both teams, for NCAA seeding, us winning up there and them winning at our place. We wanted this game. This is the third year in a row that we’re playing on Monday night. That’s one thing, when you play in this tournament, you want to play for a championship.”
42 – The number of rebounds grabbed by the Bulls, including 15 on the offensive end. USF scored 13 second-chance points.
35.5 – The shooting percentage USF’s defense held Temple to in the second half. The Bulls had a 33-30 advantage at halftime and never let the lead slip away after the break.
- USF appeared in the conference semifinals for the fourth consecutive season and will play in the championship game for the third straight year.
- Conference freshman of the year Tamara Henshaw reached her previous career high of 15 points by halftime.
- USF improved to 7-3 in the American Athletic Conference Championship.
- USF is now within three wins of matching the program season record of 27 victories set in 2014-15.
- The Bulls improved to 2-1 this season against second-seeded Temple.
USF will take on top-ranked UConn in The American championship game Monday at 7 p.m. The programs’ third meeting of the season will be televised nationally on ESPN2.
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USF has notched its fifth consecutive 20-win season. The Bulls tallied its 20th win in their 24th contest of the season which tied the fastest any program has reached 20 wins. This is the eighth 20-win season in program history and head coach Jose Fernandez has been at the helm for all eight 20-win seasons. The 2014-15 team reached 20 wins in 24 games, and still currently holds the best record for most wins in a season (27).
USF has made 12 postseason tournament appearances and had four NCAA Tournament berths in Head Coach Jose Fernandez’s 16 seasons. The all-time winningest coach in program history, Fernandez has guided USF to nine 20-win seasons, two WNIT final four appearances, the 2009 WNIT championship and won more than 300 games.