Coming into its regular season finale on Monday night at Villanova, the University of South Florida didn’t have a lot of control over its own destiny in terms of seeding for the upcoming BIG EAST Conference Tournament in Hartford, March 6-10. Sure, the game was big, because if USF did win and both Marquette and Georgetown lost, the Bulls would get the No. 8 seed in the tournament earning a first round bye. If USF won and the Golden Eagles won and the Hoyas lost – or visa versa – then the Bulls would get a No. 9 seed and play at 2 p.m. on Friday. Other than that, a Bulls loss would get USF the No. 10 seed and it would play at 6 p.m. Friday night.
One thing that the Bulls could control, however, was gaining momentum heading to Hartford as they continue to try and stay in the NCAA Tournament conversation. Well, USF embraced that momentum with open arms Monday night with a thrilling 82-80 win over the Wildcats at The Pavilion. The victory is the third straight for the Bulls, and their fifth in their last seven games, and improves their record to 21-9 and 8-8 in the BIG EAST. Villanova is 18-12 overall and 10-6 in the conference. USF’s 21 wins equals the most wins in school history joining the 2004-04 and 2006-07 team’s that also accomplished the feat.
Villanova started the game looking like it was one of the top three-point shooting teams in the BIG EAST, not the 13th. The Wildcats hit three treys in the first half, going 5-13 in the first stanza, and using two separate stretches of back-to-back three’s to take their biggest lead of the half, 26-14, with 8:13 left. The first came with the USF training by just two points, 11-9 when Danielle Starzynski hit consecutive three’s with 12:08 and 11:11 on the clock respectively to make extend Villanova’s lead to 17-9.
The second stretch came with 8:41 left on the clock when Maria Getty hit a three to give the Wildcats a 23-14 advantage. Heather Scanlon then came back on the next possession for Villanova and drained a trey with 8:13 left to give the Wildcats their biggest lead of the half.
The Bulls would cut the Villanova lead to six points several times in the final eight minutes and eventually tied it going into the half tied at 39-39.
USF came out in the second half and chipped away at the lead cutting the Wildcats lead one, 35-34 on two Starzynski free-throws with 12:33 left in the game, and then 3 consecutive three-pointers by Starzynski.
After a back-to-back possessions by both teams, and a missed field goal by Villanova, the Bulls would take their first lead of the game when Jazmine Sepulvada connected on a three-pointer with 10:51 left to make the score 36-35.
The Wildcats would come right back to regain the edge the next time down the floor when Getty drove to the basket, scored and was fouled. She hit the free throw with 10:31 left to give Villanova a 38-36 lead and setting the stage for a thrilling final 10 minutes.
After Starzynski tied the game at 41-all on a three-pointer with 8:27 left in the game, the score would remained tied until Laura Kurz hit the first of six straight free throws that would give the Wildcats a 47-41 lead with 4:10 on the clock.
Starzynski stopped the Villanova run hitting a jumper getting the lead back to four points, 47-43 with 3:25 left off an assist by Stokes.
After cutting the lead to one-point, 48-47, on a rebound put-back by Danielle Starzynski with 1:34 left, Kurz looked like she may have put the Wildcats up for good draining a three-point shot to put Villanova back up 50-47, with 58 seconds left.
On the next possession, Starzynski drove the ball down the right side of the lane connected on a lay-up and was fouled. She would go to the line, hit the free throw, tying the game at 50-all with 40 seconds left.
Villanova would call time out with 19 seconds left on the clock to set up a play, however, Starzynski stripped Siobahn O’Connor with 4 seconds left and drove the length of the court to drain a pull up 3 and give the Bulls their biggest lead of the game and the win.
O’Connor attempted a three from midcourt but it fell short.
USF had two players in double figures, Starzynski who had an amazing night scoring 63 points and Jasmine Sepulveda who also chipped in with 13.
The Bulls will now head back to Tampa before returning to the Northeast on Wednesday to prepare for their BIG EAST Conference Tournament March 6-10. Tournament pairing will be announced later tonight.