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USF women reach NCAAs
The Bulls claim a program first with a No.9 seed, and UF and FSU also get the call.
By GREG AUMAN
Published March 14, 2006
TAMPA - The program had waited 34 seasons for its first NCAA Tournament berth, and the USF women's basketball team had spent a long nine days on the bubble since losing its last game.
But at 7:17 p.m. Monday, as a crowded room of about 100 fans watched ESPN's live broadcast of the NCAA field, the Bulls cheered, danced, hugged and savored a major milestone. USF not only made the NCAA cut but did so as a No.9 seed, and the Bulls will make their tournament debut at about 9:30 p.m. Sunday against eighth-seeded Southern Cal in Norfolk, Va.
"I'm really pleased and overjoyed. They deserve this," said coach Jose Fernandez, who proudly donned an NCAA baseball cap given to him by athletic director Doug Woolard. "It's all we've talked about. We've been to the NIT the last two years, so this is the next step for our program."
The Bulls (19-10) are one of four state teams in the NCAA field, with Florida and Florida State, both No.6 seeds, and Florida Atlantic, which will make its tournament debut as a No.16 against top-seeded LSU.
FAU knew it was in Saturday when the Owls won the Atlantic Sun championship, but USF had been projected by espn.com as the last team to make the field. Fernandez had a long week of uncertainty, and Monday, trying an afternoon round of golf to ease his nerves, he triple-bogeyed the 17th hole. His evening turned out much better.
"It shows how strong our league is and the type of schedule we played," said Fernandez, who could face top-seeded Duke in the second round. "You play a tough schedule, you get rewarded."
At 10 a.m. today, the Bulls open practice in preparation for the Trojans (19-11), who have lost six of their past 11, most recently 73-44 to No.13 Stanford. Monday night, however, was a time to celebrate.
"We've made history," center Nalini Miller said. "It's a wonderful feeling."
Florida (21-8), with wins over Top 10 Tennessee and LSU in the final two weeks of the regular season, play 11th-seeded New Mexico (21-9) about 10 p.m. Saturday in Tucson, Ariz. The Gators opened with New Mexico in the tournament two years ago.
"It's going to be a battle," Florida coach Carolyn Peck said after watching the selection show with the team. "New Mexico is a team that finished up the regular season No.24 in the country. It was a battle when we played them two years ago and it's going to be the same thing again."
Defending national champion and No.3 seed Baylor (24-6) will play Northern Arizona (21-10) in the same bracket. When the Gators defeated New Mexico in 2004, they lost to Baylor in the second round.
"It's almost deja vu for those of us who went to New Mexico two years ago," senior guard Sarah Lowe said. "At the same time I think it's exciting."
Florida is making its 11th tournament appearance, its first since 2004. Peck said she plans to ensure that her team focuses solely on New Mexico, not looking ahead, but she thinks the team can make a good run.
"The way our team has practiced post-SEC tournament, if that's any indication, we should have a very exciting run," Peck said.
In Tallahassee, FSU coach Sue Semrau happened upon a mission statement her seniors had crafted just before entering school four years ago, dedicating themselves to turning a struggling program around.
"We're going to do that by keeping each other focused and committed throughout our four years," they wrote then.
They did that, persevering through ups and downs and the death of teammate Ronalda Pierce in the summer of 2004, to earn a second straight bid to the NCAAs. FSU (19-9) last made back-to-back tournaments in 1990-91.
"They've had a lot of firsts for this program," Semrau said. "And I know they would like to finish with more firsts."
Semrau and her players, who gathered at the University Center to watch the selection show, were thrilled to see they were a No.6 seed (matching last year for the highest in program history) and would open against No.11-seeded Louisiana Tech in Denver 8 p.m. Saturday.
"I think we match up pretty well with La. Tech," Semrau said. "And it's at a neutral site. That gives us opportunity and that's what we've been fighting for, opportunity."
Last year, FSU beat Richmond in the opening round then met Connecticut on its home floor in Storrs. The bulk of the 6,167 fans were squarely for the Huskies, who won 70-52.
In 2001, FSU again reached the second round but had to play the host team, Iowa State, in Ames. Advantage, Cyclones, who won 85-70.
"We'll get a chance to be on the big stage," Semrau said, "and see how much we've grown as a program."
Florida International was picked for the WNIT and opens Thursday against Cincinnati.
--Times staff writers Antonya English and Brian Landman contributed to this report.