USF women's basketball had been on the wrong end of so many close games this season, with last second and overtime losses to ranked teams like Louisville & Notre Dame at home. It seemed like a star-crossed team that would get close, but head back to the WNIT for the eighth time against just one NCAA appearance.
But the breaks started going their way, and now they wake up this morning on the right side of the bubble. Following a 35 point, 11-16 from the floor performance by Andrea Smith to avenge the Louisville loss on the road, the Bulls picked up a massive 68-66 win over Syracuse on Saturday to put themselves in the dance and off the bubble.
The Bulls trailed most of the second half, and it was close until SU closed out the first half with a 13-0 to head to the locker room up 37-26. The Orange were driving the ball to the rim with impunity, and it seemed like everything they did off the bounce was working. If you haven't seen the women's team this year, they're certainly better in relative terms on the perimeter than the men's team, but struggle on the block in a similar fashion. USF could make runs and knock down some shots, but couldn't quite get enough stops to dig out of the first half hole. But they clawed back to make it 61-59 Orange at the under 4:00 media timeout. And then came That Moment.
If you're a USF fan, you're very familiar with That Moment, and having it usually not go your way. With just over 1:30 to go and the Bulls down 64-63, Andrea Smith drives the lane, and kicks it out to her sister Andrell, who was a few feet behind the 3-point line just to the right of the top of the key. She instantly pulled the trigger when the ball hit her hands, and as the ball is in the air, you could feel the fate of the season hanging under her arching shot. It was the same feeling the Bulls had vs. Notre Dame when Andrea Smith drove the lane in a tie game with eight seconds left, didn't get a foul call, and had her layup bounce out. It was was the same moment the Bulls had vs. Villanova, where a busted defense on an inbounds play forced a foul that cost them the game.
These are the moments where USF hasn't gotten that last break all season. These are the points where something that can go either way needs to go right. These are the points of luck that need to break in your favor if your program is on a trajectory up instead of complacent or down.
It went in. It felt like a program changer as soon as it crossed the rim. And now there was no f'ing way USF was going to lose this game... and then being USF they almost did. After an insane missed layup by Alisia Jenkins who only needed to run out the clock or make it to ice the game with a two point lead and under 10 seconds left. Syracuse ended up taking a horrible 30+ footer with plenty of time left to lose it. The better team won. They're getting their karmic breaks at the right time. Let's see if they can hold it.
There's still three conference games to go, but the RPI and strength of schedule will improve for the Bulls no matter whether they win or lose. USF (19-7, 8-5 Big East) is #58 in the RPI, and they take on Rutgers (64 in RPI, unranked) tomorrow night at 7:30 on CBS Sports Network. RU has lost four straight trying to get the 900th win for Basketball Hall of Fame head coach Vivian Stringer, so let's not get Al Downing'ed if we can avoid it. On Saturday USF gets UConn (RPI 2, #3) in what is usually a home game at the Sun Dome for the Huskies and their traveling legions of old people and day care aged children. Don't discount USF's ability to pull this off... they took #2 Notre Dame to overtime at home this season already, though the post play of UConn's Stefanie Dolson & Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis would seem to make this a much stiffer challenge.
The Bulls will finish with Georgetown (RPI 50, unranked) on the road a week from today. Each game is huge, but one win might be enough for the Bulls to get to the NCAA's barring a terrible loss in the Big East tournament. Two seems to make it a lock. As of right now, Charlie Creme (the women's Joe Lunardi for the WWL) has the Bulls as one of the last four in, and a #11 seed playing in College Station vs. FSU. We much prefer this bracket from some site we've never heard of before that has USF has a #7 seed Washington in Happy Valley... yeah, we know.
Also here's a nice piece on the Smith twins and what they've meant to USF by the always excellent Graham Hays on ESPN.com. The team also got 21 votes in the latest AP poll, putting them three slots behind the first Top 25 ranking in team history.
There's plenty of space on the bandwagon as the Bulls look to get back to the NCAA's for the first time since 2006. But before you think everything is all rosy, let's point out that while we're still paying $500,000 to Skip Holtz to not coach here for the next five years, Jose Fernandez's contract runs out in a month. He's been to the postseason eight of the last nine seasons, and he's about to be a free agent since our chants of "give him a contract!!" as Doug Woolard presented him with the ball for his 200th career win went unheeded. The standard USF coaching question goes here... if you lose him, who ya gonna get that's better?? Let's hope USF finds whatever pennies are left under the couch cushions to keep him here.