LAS VEGAS — On Friday afternoon, the USF women’s basketball team settled into a corner of the Orleans Arena to watch Santa Clara face San Diego in a West Coast Conference tournament quarterfinal.
Two Dons coaches sat courtside, beginning scouting assessments. The players watched intently from the stands. They knew they’d face the winner — which turned out to be second-seeded San Diego (24-5) — in the semifinals today at 2 p.m.
The sixth-seeded Dons (18-12) reached this stage of the tournament for the first time since 2007 thanks to a 74-64 win over No. 3 Pacific on Thursday, their second win over the Tigers in five days. Taylor Proctor, Zhane Dikes and Taj Winston led the way with a combined 50 points, but all three players pointed to the performances around them as equally pivotal.
Paige Spietz, Michaela Rakova and Alicia Scafidi were excellent in the low post for USF on both ends. Aundrea Gordon and Anna Seilund helped flummox Pacific from the wings of the Dons’ 1-3-1 zone defense. Seilund, a freshman from Denmark, was one of the Dons’ loudest players.
“That’s something we’ve actually worked a lot on,” said USF head coach Jennifer Azzi. “This group tends to be pretty quiet, but you can’t play basketball without talking. So, that’s part of the chemistry that’s developing. They’re more and more comfortable with that.”
Dikes chuckled when asked if the team enjoyed a little celebration to commemorate their feat.
“We were very excited, but there was no ‘I, I, I’ about it,” Dikes said. “Everyone came in and contributed. Our bench was so involved. It was a total team win.”
That’s become a theme of USF’s late-season surge. As Winston and Dikes made their way up to the arena’s concourse for an interview on Friday, they received a quick message from two of their coaches: “Keep it about the team.”
“People aren’t really expecting some of the people to come off the bench and perform the way they do, but we’re that good,” Winston said. “It’s time for people to start understanding that.”
Said Dikes, a 5-foot-9 junior and Las Vegas native with a large collection of family on hand this weekend, “Coach Azzi always says that we have to continue to work, no matter if we have games the next day or not. Putting in all that hard work, even during January when things weren’t going our way, brought us together now. Our performances have gotten a lot better.”
San Diego, the Dons’ opponent today, was one of those midseason thorns. The Toreros beat USF twice in conference play — by a combined six points. But USF has shown it is well-suited for postseason play. The Dons have experience, ever-increasing defensive effectiveness and make their free throws at a 76 percent rate, 11th-best in Division I. Against Pacific on Thursday, the Dons were 26-of-34 from the foul line, a 76.5 percent clip. Defensiveky, USF held Pacific to 32 percent shooting from the floor.
Due to the presence of BYU, a Mormon school that does not participate in athletic activities on Sundays, USF was in the unique position of having three days off before today’s semifinal. But Dikes wanted to get right back to it. As Azzi told reporters on Thursday night, “We didn’t come to Las Vegas to gamble.”
“We came here to win,” Dikes said. “I want to take care of business. I want to play now.”