TAMPA — In the words of men’s soccer coach George Kiefer, it was decided by a fingernail or a thumb. There were moments when it didn’t look possible.
But against all odds, the University of South Florida Bulls emerged, defeating the Connecticut Huskies in penalty kicks to capture the American Athletic Conference tournament championship.
And that meant a seventh consecutive NCAA tournament bid for Kiefer’s program, an unprecedented accomplishment in any sport at USF.
“You want to keep that going,’’ Kiefer said. “The minute you let it creep in where you don’t go to one, then what happens the following year? It’s about holding a standard. They did an excellent job of keeping that standard going.’’
The Bulls (8-3-9) travel Thursday night to a first-round NCAA match at North Carolina (8-5-5), and facing the Tar Heels is a game within a game.
For several seasons, Kiefer has tried to schedule a match with UNC, only to be rebuffed.
“Just no interest,’’ said Kiefer, whose Bulls are playing for a Sunday second-round trip to UC Irvine. “We’re welcome to come there, but they’re not coming here. If I was Chapel Hill, maybe I would do the same thing, I don’t know. I know I’m at South Florida, so I look at it differently.”
“The request has been made more than once. We’ve wanted to go there and now we’re going. They have to let us (come) and they have to give us practice time.’’
Kiefer smiled when he said that.
USF men’s soccer belongs at the top level. Its defense is reason enough for that status.
“It shows you what I know,’’ Kiefer said. “Earlier in the year, I was worried about our back four.’’
Instead, the defense and goalkeeper Brentton Muhammad have carried the Bulls, who have allowed one goal or fewer in 17 of their 20 matches. Muhammad is tied for 12th nationally in goals-against-average (0.63) and is 14th in save percentage (.841).
USF’s offense wasn’t up to that standard, so the Bulls have nine ties. At times, that became frustrating. But it never kept USF from striving.
“There were a lot of games where we walked away feeling like we deserved a win and we walked away with a tie,’’ Kiefer said. “I’m thankful we kept believing in each other and kept working with each other. We didn’t start turning on each other because that could’ve easily happened.
“It’s super special this year because (we learned) a lot of lessons that are similar to life. We all go through tough times, right? It’s about how you respond, how you stick together. The chemistry is always great when you’re winning. When you’re tying or losing, it could go the other way, but it didn’t.’’
That spirit was seen in Sunday’s AAC final against UConn at Frisco, Texas.
“In 2008, when we won the (Big East) tournament, we were already in (the NCAA field),’’ Kiefer said. “This time, we had to win (to get a bid). You lose, you’re cooked, you’re done. At two different points, our keeper had to make saves (to keep USF’s hopes alive).
“I told our group, ‘Now you need to make a choice. Are you happy with what has gone on and content? Or do you want to go to a place like Chapel Hill, which won’t even schedule us (and go further)?’ Now we have our opportunity.’’
After a 75-61 win at Bowling Green, Stan Heath’s Bulls are 3-0 heading into Friday night’s home game against Stetson. USF also hosts No. 7-ranked Oklahoma State — led by sophomore Marcus Smart, a consensus first-team preseason All-American — on Monday night.
The Bulls shot 58.7 percent from the field at Bowling Green, the program’s best effort since 60.5 against Pittsburgh on Feb. 8, 2012.
Meanwhile, junior-college transfer Corey Allen Jr., who averaged 20 points, seven rebounds and six assists in two games, was named to the AAC honor roll. Allen, who started USF’s first three games at point guard, has been “more than I anticipated,’’ Heath said.
Jose Fernandez’s women’s basketball team was in Peoria, Ill., on Sunday, preparing to play Bradley University, when the city was hit with several tornadoes and intense thunderstorms. “It was scary stuff,’’ Fernandez said. A pregame film session was interrupted as the Bulls were ordered to leave a meeting room and assemble in the middle of the hotel for safety. Fernandez and the players heard the howling winds and saw the flooded streets, but were able to complete an 87-63 victory against Bradley. Afterward, the Bulls headed to Chicago as scheduled and returned home on Monday.
Football WR Andre Davis had seven receptions for 110 yards in a 23-10 loss against Memphis. Davis is the third USF player ever with back-to-back 100-yard receiving games, joining Hugh Smith (2002) and DeAndrew Rubin (2001). … With four matches remaining, Courtney Draper’s volleyball team (14-14, 8-6) has slipped into the middle of the AAC pack after home losses against Cincinnati (which was 1-26) and Louisville (which clinched the league’s championship).