By TOM ZEBOLD
USF Senior Writer
TAMPA – The Bulls’ season finale didn’t produce the result they wanted but the game itself set a great example for any USF athletic team to follow moving forward.
USF trailed No. 6 Cal by 14 in the second half and 10 in the final minute before the Bulls shocked the nation by forcing overtime in the second round of the NCAA tournament Monday night in Lubbock, Texas.
The Golden Bears reached the Sweet 16 with an 82-78 win but the Bulls made a statement that won’t be forgotten anytime soon around the halls at USF Athletics headquarters, or around the nation for that matter.
“South Florida was so good,” Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “That team didn’t feel like a 10 seed. I think they’re a top 25 team. Their players never quit. They made life tough on us all the time, so I really credit them.”
So what did it come down to?
Was it tough defense that put the pressure on Cal to sputter at the free throw line?
Was it a clutch performance from Inga Orekhova, who sank three free throws with 0.7 seconds remaining in regulation to tie it up?
Those two factors had a ton to do with USF’s miracle comeback but senior Andrell Smith nailed it when talking about what kept the Bulls going when the odds were largely stacked against them late in the ball game.
“Heart. One word. Heart,” she said. “We played with it the whole entire season. We’ve hit adversity before and we know how to keep our composure and bounce back from that. These girls have a big heart and our coaches have a big heart.”
USF could have been happy with already making program history with its first stunner of the tournament, a 71-70 win over hometown Texas Tech, but head coach Jose Fernandez’s team wasn’t satisfied with just being in the dance. The Bulls wanted to boogie over to Washington and then New Orleans to play for it all and a 10-point deficit wasn’t going to stand in their way.
“I couldn’t be happier as a basketball coach with the team I had on the floor there tonight,” Fernandez said in the postgame press conference. “I think for our underclassmen, it’s going to give them fuel to just bring in summer to get us back here next year.”
USF wants to win national championships no matter what the sport and Fernandez’s team showed every Bull excellence is possible if a team keeps believing.
“It’s going to hurt, but this is something that they’re going to remember for a lifetime,” Fernandez said.