Preview: No. 21 South Florida takes on East Carolina

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 08 AAC Women’s Tournament - South Florida v UConn
Sydni Harvey and the USF Bulls will look to maintain their Top 25 ranking with a conference win over the ECU Pirates. | Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Both the No. 21 South Florida Bulls (6-1) and East Carolina Pirates (5-3) enter this matchup an undefeated 3-0 in AAC play. While the ranked Bulls would seem to have the edge, ECU’s AAC Player of the Week winners Lashonda Monk and Taniyah Thompson are capable of sparking an upset win with their big-time scoring.

On Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m. ET, the No. 21 South Florida Bulls (6-1) welcome the East Carolina Pirates (5-3) to Tampa for an AAC showdown.

Since an early-December upset of the then-No. 6 Mississippi State Bulldogs, USF has not suffered a letdown loss, notching four-straight wins. Most recently, they blew out the expected AAC bottom dwellers, the Tulsa Golden Hurricanes, 63-35 on Dec. 30.

Head coach Jose Fernandez got strong, balanced production from across his lineup. While sophomore point guard Elisa Pinzan led the way with 13 points, including a 3-for-5 performance from 3-point range, junior forward Bethy Mununga added 11 points, and sophomore guard Syndi Harvey and freshman guard Elena Tsineke both chipped in with 10. Junior center Shae Leverett snagged a team-high eight rebounds.

However, there is some cause for concern for USF.

Against the Memphis Tigers (Dec. 16) and Cincinnati Bearcats (Dec. 22), USF established big leads that they let slip away. A 13-point second-half margin over the Tigers was cut to one point early in the fourth quarter before the Bulls again pulled away for the 65-58 victory. The Bulls’ early double-digit lead over the Bearcats also evaporated. After USF was up by 16 points in the first quarter, Cincinnati worked its way back into the game, eventually taking a lead late in the third quarter. But USF would finish strong, going on an 18-5 run midway through the fourth quarter to get the 73-61 win.

Expect ECU to be ready to give USF a fight.

After back-to-back losses to the Georgia Lady Bulldogs and Duke Blue Devils in early December, the Pirates have won four-straight games, including three-straight conference wins to match the Bulls’ perfect 3-0 record in AAC action.

Illustrative of ECU’s excellent start to conference play is the fact that two Pirates have been named AAC Player of the Week.

Senior guard Lashonda Monk earned the honor on Dec. 21 for her career-high 32-point performance in ECU’s 74-67 win over Cincinnati. Then, sophomore guard Taniyah Thompson picked up the Player of the Week hardware on Dec. 28 after dropping a season-high 27 points in ECU’s 72-64 victory over the Tulane Green Wave,

If they upset USF, don’t be surprised if the Player of Week honor again stays with ECU, whether Monk, Thompson or another Pirate earns the award.

Game Information

No. 21 South Florida Bulls (6-1, 3-0 AAC) vs. East Carolina Pirates (5-3, 3-0 AAC)

When: Saturday, Jan. 2 at 4 p.m. ET

Where: Yuengling Center in Tampa, FL

How to watch/listen: ESPN+, Bulls Unlimited

What to watch for: Can the Pirates hang with the Bulls on the boards? USF is ranked 16th in the nation in rebounding, pulling down an average of almost 48 boards per game. In contrast, ECU has been outrebounded by its opponents, averaging only 33.6 rebounds per game. If this game turns into a gritty, grinding battle, the Bulls should be able to use their dominance of the glass, led by Bethy Mununga and her 10.7 rebounds per game, to put away the Pirates.