After getting out to a strong start this season, the No. 21 University of South Florida women’s basketball team heads to the Cancun Challenge this weekend looking to continue its early success.
The Bulls are sitting at 5-1 through their first six games, with the lone loss coming on the road at No. 2 Baylor on Nov. 19 by a score of 58-46. USF trailed by just four points entering the fourth quarter of that matchup but was outscored, 17-9, in the final period to lose.
The Bulls have only played two ranked teams thus far — the aforementioned road loss to Baylor and a home win over then-No. 15 Texas earlier in November. That won’t change this weekend in Cancun as none of USF’s opponents currently appear in the AP Top 25 poll, but the trip to Mexico still presents a challenge for the Bulls.
USF is the only ranked team of the 10 making the trip to Cancun — the other participants are Creighton, Florida Golf Coast University, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, Notre Dame, South Dakota State, Temple and West Virginia.
Of those teams, Notre Dame is the only other team receiving votes in the AP Poll and was the second team out in the most recent rankings with 44 votes.
MOVIN' ON UP ⤴! The Bulls climb one spot in this week's @AP_Top25 poll to No. 2⃣1⃣. We're heading to the @CancunChallenge with a 5-1 record for a BIG week of games against three 2019 NCAA Tourney teams: South Dakota State, FGCU and national runner-up Notre Dame.@HornsUp🤘 pic.twitter.com/5KUj4AuJ9p— USF W. Basketball (@USFWBB) November 25, 2019
As this weekend’s tournament approaches, the Bulls travel to Cancun with one of the best defenses in the country. USF currently ranks eighth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 47.5 points per game to its opponents. The Bulls haven’t allowed more than 60 points this year — the most is the 58 they allowed to Baylor in the loss. Most recently, USF defeated Saint Francis (Pa.) and allowed just 23 points to the Red Flash, including just two points in the second quarter and just four points in the third.
On that top-10 defense, the Bulls are led by junior Bethy Mununga as a starter and junior Shae Leverett off the bench. Mununga averages 12.5 points and 10.2 rebounds in 26.8 minutes per game, and Leverett plays about 20 minutes per night while putting up, on average, 3.7 points and grabbing 6.8 boards.
In the Bulls’ dominant win over Saint Francis, Leverett notched her first double-double of the year and sixth of her career at USF with 12 points and 13 rebounds. The team’s lone senior, Tamara Henshaw, is also an important contributor alongside Leverett as the Bulls’ other key post.
Defense is the calling card of this year’s edition of the Bulls. USF ranks 184th in the nation in total scoring offense, averaging 66.8 points per game. Mununga’s 12.5 points per game lead the team, and junior guard Enna Pehadzic is in a close second averaging just under 12 points per game at 11.8.
Last year, the Bulls dealt with the injury bug quite a big, and Pehadzic was tasked with scoring quite a bit of volume to keep the team’s offense afloat. Now that USF is healthier, Pehadzic is able to share the offensive load and doesn’t have to be the go-to scorer every single night. After a breakout year last season, Pehadzic was tabbed as a preseason All-Conference Second Team selection in the AAC.
Congratulations to our own @Bethy_Mng for being named to the @American_WBB weekly Honor Roll. Second-straight weekly honor for her.— USF W. Basketball (@USFWBB) November 25, 2019
This week Bethy...
👉 Averaged 12 ppg
👉 Grabbed 9 rpg
👉 55.6% from the field
👉 Career-high 16 points, 12 rebounds vs. No. 2 Baylor#HornsUp🤘 pic.twitter.com/xFSZ8mzXHC
Elsewhere on the offensive side of the ball, freshman guard Elena Tsineke, who comes to USF from Thessaloniki, Greece, made her season debut in the Bulls’ win over Saint Francis on Nov. 24. In 20 minutes of action, Tsineke went 4-of-8 from the field and 4-of-5 from the charity stripe for a team-leading 13 points in her first appearance in a Bulls’ jersey.
This weekend in Cancun, Tsineke could expect to see more time and continue that early success — just like her team is looking to do.
USF’s first game in Cancun will be on Thursday, Nov. 28 against South Dakota State, and the Bulls will then face FGCU on Friday and last year’s national runner-up, Notre Dame, on Saturday. The weekend promises to bring stiff competition and will serve as a good test for a team that hasn’t faced too many challenges yet, outside of the games against Baylor and Texas.
All three of the Bulls’ opponents this weekend made the NCAA Tournament last year, and Notre Dame went all the way to the championship game before falling to Baylor. So, after Saturday, USF will have already played last year’s last two teams standing, as well as another team from last year’s tournament — Texas, which the Bulls already beat this year.
For the Bulls, trying to reestablish prominence after an injury-decimated 2018-19 season — where they still made the AAC Tournament semifinals and the second round of the WNIT — three straight games against tournament teams from last year will present a good early-season measuring stick.