UNCASVILLE, Conn. – South Florida coach Jose Fernandez believes his team has done enough to earn an NCAA tournament bid. He hopes the selection committee agrees.
Inga Orekhova and Courtney Williams each scored 19 points in the Bulls' 60-56 loss to No. 3 Louisville on Sunday in the semifinals of the American Athletic Conference tournament.
Fernandez's team has been playing extremely well since it has gotten healthy, winning nine of its previous 11 games before the loss to the Cardinals. South Florida's only losses since Jan. 1 have come to either top-ranked UConn or Louisville.
"I think this team came out and pleaded its case to the NCAA committee," Fernandez said. "I was proud of our kids effort and fight. It's a tough way to lose, but I think this team still has a lot of basketball left to play this year we'll see what happens."
Louisville coach Jeff Walz was impressed with the Bulls and said it would be wrong for them to not make the tournament.
"If they aren't one of 64 teams in NCAA tournament it's a shame," he said. "They're healthy now and got everybody back. If we're trying to put best 64 teams in the tournament there is no question South Florida should be in."
The Bulls, who were looking for their first victory ever over a top-10 team, were banged up early in the season with Orekhova missing a few games after surgery to repair a torn meniscus in her left knee.
Fernandez had to miss the Louisville game that South Florida lost by 20 on Feb. 2 after having an allergic reaction to medication he was taking. He was in the hospital for a few days.
The Bulls were missing guard Tamara Taylor, who suffered a concussion in the quarterfinals. They did have Williams back. She had sprained her ankle in that game.
"It's all right, a baby sprain that's all," Williams said. "I twisted it a little bit."
South Florida (19-12) almost clinched a berth by beating Louisville, but Shoni Schimmel hit a pullup in the lane with 6 seconds left to give the Cardinals the victory.
The Cardinals (30-3) will face top-ranked UConn on Monday night for the inaugural conference tournament title.
With the game tied at 56, Courtney Williams missed a 3-pointer with 10 seconds left for South Florida. Schimmel then drove up the court and pulled up in the lane for the go-ahead jumper.
Her sister, Jude, then stole the ball at midcourt from Williams and hit two free throws to seal the win.
Shoni Schimmel led Louisville with 17 points.
Trailing 51-46 with just over 8 minutes left, Louisville rallied behind consecutive 3-pointers by Tia Gibbs and Shoni Schimmel. Those were Schimmel's first points of the second half.
Two free throws by Gibbs gave Louisville a 56-54 lead. Orekhova got fouled on the other end, and the 90 percent free throw shooter, who had made 36 straight from the line, missed the front end of a 1-and-1.
Williams' putback with 1:10 left tied it at 56, setting up the frantic finish.
The Cardinals trailed 20-10 midway through the first half before they got going. Louisville scored 16 of the next 20 points, including three 3-pointers by Shoni Schimmel. Jude Schimmel made a layup to give the Cardinals their first lead of the game at 26-24. Shoni Schimmel's fourth 3-pointer of the half made it 33-29 at the break.
Follow Doug on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/dougfeinberg