HARTFORD, Conn. – South Florida coach Jose Fernandez knows his team has done enough to get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. He just hopes the selection committee agrees.
The Bulls fell just short against top-seed Notre Dame, falling 75-66 on Sunday in the Big East tournament quarterfinals.
"Hopefully we showed the NCAA committee and everyone in the country that we belong in the NCAA tournament," Fernandez said.
The Bulls were led by senior sisters Andrell and Andrea Smith, who combined for 45 points. Andrell had 27, hitting 10 of her 16 shots.
"I was happy that Andrell had such a good game," Fernandez said. "She had been struggling a little bit offensively. To ask her to guard an All-American for 40 minutes and play as well offensively that was a great performance."
The two have played together forever and will miss that when their season ends — whenever that may be.
"It's fun playing with this girl," Andrell Smith said, pointing to her sister. "She's my best friend on and off the court. She makes me better as a competitor, player and person."
The Smith sisters just couldn't overcome Notre Dame and Natalie Achonwa, who had 20 points and 20 rebounds.
"Achonwa's numbers were record setting at Notre Dame — 20-20 is a phenomenal accomplishment," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said.
It was the first 20-20 in tournament play since Rebecca Lobo did it in 1993.
McGraw, who said that playing now is really just about surviving and advancing, also felt that the play of Ariel Braker was huge to pull out a school record 24th straight victory.
"I thought Ariel Braker was the player of the game," McGraw said. "She made so many big plays when she needed them. Totally above and beyond her call. She's one of our best defenders and rebounders, she helped us on offense tonight."
Skylar Diggins, the Big East player of the year, added 15 points for the Irish, who will face No. 13 Louisville in the semifinals Monday night.
Notre Dame and South Florida met in early January, and Notre Dame came away with a 75-71 overtime victory. Sunday's game was more of the same.
Notre Dame (29-1) trailed 51-47 midway through the second half before scoring eight straight points, including four by Achonwa.
The Smith sisters — Andrell and Andrea — did all they could to keep the Bulls (21-10) in the game, but they couldn't regain the lead.
Andrea Smith hit the first of two free throws with 5:08 left to pull within 61-57. But Notre Dame scored the next six points — including four by Kayla McBride, who had a quiet game otherwise — to put the game away.
With the Irish's win, every top seed in the history of the Big East tournament has reached the semifinals. Notre Dame had to work hard to keep that streak alive.
Achonwa came up with almost every big play to help the Irish, whether grabbing an offensive rebound or making a key defensive play.
"The second half, I worked before I got the ball," Achonwa said. "A lot was catch and shoot. The guards did a great job of finding me."
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