WNIT gives USF chance to build on WCC Tournament momentum 

click to enlarge USF
  • Courtesy Kyle Terada/ USA Today Sports
  • USF coach Jennifer Azzi, left, and freshman Anna Seilund will help the Dons advance in the Women's NIT.
On Monday, the USF women’s basketball team learned that it had earned its first postseason appearance since 2002 — the reward for an impressive surge highlighted by an appearance in the West Coast Conference Tournament championship game. The Dons (19-13) face Fresno State (22-9) today in the first round of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament.

“It’s another stride forward,” said Jennifer Azzi, the former Stanford star who is in her fifth season as USF’s coach. “These kids have helped this program to its best season in almost 20 years. Everyone is excited to play Fresno.”

After defeating Pacific and San Diego, USF fell to BYU in the WCC Tournament final last week. Dons senior Taj Winston, who averaged 20.7 points and 7.3 rebounds through those three games, spoke of confidence gained.

“We showed how good we are, and how good we can be,” Winston said. Added Azzi: “We focused less on the loss and more on the progress. We upset the No. 3 and No. 2 seeds in the WCC Tournament. No one wants to end on a loss — it’s harder to come in second than anywhere else — but we set our sights on what’s ahead of us.”

Improved bench production has proved key to the Dons’ recent success. Azzi hailed the emergence of freshman Anna Seilund, a 5-foot-9 wing from Denmark who has provided expert long-range shooting and defensive intensity, most notably when the Dons employ a 1-3-1 zone defense.

“Last week was kind of funky,” Seilund said. “We weren’t exactly sure if we would be in the postseason, but we practiced and prepared all the same. Now, we’re writing our own history, and I love being a part of it.”

Fresno State is led by senior Alex Sheedy, who was named Mountain West co-Player of the Year after averaging 15.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game. Bulldogs senior guard Raven Fox (2.4 steals) earned conference Sixth Player of the Year honors, along with a selection to the All-Defensive team. This is the Bulldogs’ eighth consecutive postseason appearance — the previous seven were in the NCAA Tournament.

“[Fresno State] has a lot of experience in postseason situations, and they’re very strong defensively,” Azzi said. “But more than that, we have to focus more on the way we play.”

Should USF beat Fresno State today, it will face the winner of St. Mary’s-Hawaii in the second round on either Sunday or Monday. A win over the Bulldogs would give USF its first 20-win season since 1996-97.

“It’s a blessing and an honor to be able to play,” said Winston. “We want to keep our season going.”

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