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Buffalo and South Florida with plenty to prove in NCAA Tournament

TALLAHASSEE – The stars aren't in their eyes.

They've been here before. Both UB and South Florida. The NCAA Tournament isn't something new and shiny. And while they will take in the pomp and circumstance of the biggest stage in women's basketball, there's business at hand.

For South Florida, it's about getting out of the first weekend of the tournament. For UB, it's about winning their first NCAA game. For both teams, coincidentally both nicknamed the Bulls, it's about letting go of last year's baggage and living in the present moment.

The two teams will meet in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Tucker Civic Center at 1:30 p.m. (ESPN 2).

At this time last year, South Florida played Mizzou in the first-round in Tallahassee. The Bulls led by 13 at halftime but faltered after the break, losing, 66-64, on a buzzer-beater by Sierra Michaelis.

"I think last year is already history," said USF junior guard Kitija Laksa at Friday's NCAA press conference in Tucker Civic Center. "We grow from it and learn from our mistakes. This year is a new opportunity. We've been preparing really hard for this game all season long."

Their eyes have been on the prize of an NCAA Tournament run. In six total NCAA appearances, South Florida is 3-5 and has never advanced past the second round. Their last win was in 2016 when as a No. 6 seed they beat No. 11 Colorado State before losing to UCLA.

"This is my fourth NCAA Tournament and we've never passed the second round," said senior Laia Flores. "We know we have to focus in every game if we're going to think about Sweet Sixteen. But even if that's our goal, we've got to think  about Buffalo."

Ranked 19th in the last Associated Press poll, South Florida would rule the American Athletic Conference if it weren't for Connecticut. Four straight seasons South Florida has reached the championship game. Four straight times they've lost to the Huskies.

But the game is more than the final score. South Florida hung with UConn more than most teams, and when you continually play the best team on the planet, you're bound to get better.

"Especially our last game against UConn, I feel like it gave us a lot of confidence knowing we can play with the best in the country," senior forward Maria Jespersen said. "It's always fun to play against the best. That's what you want to do, what you want to be. We're ready for the challenge every time and we improve every time."

South Florida saved its best basketball for late in the season, including a signature 84-65 win over 10th-ranked Ohio State on Feb. 11. In that game Laksa dropped 41 points and USF held the Buckeyes to just six offensive rebounds.

"I think how we've shared the basketball and our shooting percentage has definitely increased," USF coach Jose Fernandez said about his team since that win over Ohio State. "At this point in the season I think one thing that we have done, we've been holding teams to one shot and out. We've done a good job taking care of the basketball as well. All season long we've prided ourselves in defending without fouling. I think those are the biggest positives."

On the other side of the ledger, UB is looking for its first NCAA Tournament win. UB made its debut in 2016 after winning the Mid-American Conference championship. They lost to Ohio State, 88-69, in Columbus, but gained a world of experience.

"I think it just got the nerves out, honestly," UB senior Stephanie Reid said of the 2016 NCAA bid. "We've been here before so it's more of a competitive feeling. Last time it was 'Oh my gosh we're here. Wow. This is so exciting.' Now it's like, 'Let's get down to business and win a game and keep going."

"My hope is that we don't get star struck again," UB coach Felisha Legette-Jack said. "South Florida is a great team with a great tradition. Coach Fernandez has done a great job. But he's going to put five people on the floor. We're going to put five people on the floor. Let's just play the people in front of us and not their reputation and history of who they are."

While South Florida wants to erase the memory of last year's last-second second loss in the tournament, UB wants to prove it belongs here after being snubbed by both the NCAA and WNIT in 2017. There's a bit of a chip on UB's shoulder, which could help them keep focus on their defense and transition – the parts of their game in which they excel.

"We want to focus on what we're capable of doing," Legette-Jack said. "The heart stuff, the blue-collar worth ethic that comes out of Buffalo."

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