Share of conference title still possible for Charlotte 49ers. Up next: No. 25 USF Bulls

As the calendar flips to March, the Charlotte 49ers are still in position to achieve their goals. But with just four guaranteed games remaining, Aaron Fearne’s team has work to do.

While the outright American Athletic Conference regular season championship is out of the window, Charlotte (17-10, 11-4 AAC) still has a chance at a share of the regular-season title and a double-bye in Texas for the conference tournament — starting with redemption against the No. 25 South Florida Bulls (21-5, 14-1 AAC) in Halton Arena on Saturday at 4 PM (ESPN+).

In the rematch of early February’s heavyweight clash in Tampa, the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the AAC square off Saturday on Charlotte’s senior day, where both Jackson Threadgill and Robert Braswell IV will be honored.

The last time these teams met, Charlotte saw a 17-point lead evaporate in the game’s final minutes, with Selton Miguel’s 22 points and Brandon Stroud’s late-game heroics proving too much for the 49ers. South Florida, winners of 13 straight and 18 of the past 19, is the second nationally ranked opponent to travel to Halton this season — and the 49ers are looking to take down two ranked opponents in the Queen City for the first time since 1997-98.

The rematch

For Charlotte’s leading scorer Lu’Cye Patterson, this one is personal.

“That one hurt. We kind of blew a little lead. It stung because it was for first place, and we know that we are better than them,” Patterson said of South Florida. “It’s OK, they can have the first one. It’s just all about the next one.”

Charlotte is in a familiar situation heading into Saturday afternoon’s matchup, following consecutive losses to Memphis and Tulsa. The last time the 49ers lost two straight on the road, Charlotte responded with a 70-68 victory against then-No.17 Florida Atlantic, jumpstarting an eight-game win streak that led to the removal of Fearne’s interim coach tag.

And with Charlotte likely needing to win the AAC Tournament to punch a ticket to the big dance for the first time since 2004-05, Fearne’s group needs to hit their stride — and fast.

“We are not doing a good enough job of (executing under pressure) so we got some things to work on in the next week,” said Fearne following the 69-67 loss at Tulsa. “Toughness is the word. You can’t win in this game at this point of the year if you don’t rebound. And rebounding is all about toughness.”

The 49ers have lost the rebounding matchup in all four of their conference losses this season and must attack the glass to keep the streaking Bulls from securing their first AAC regular season championship with two games to play.

Charlotte ranks last in the AAC in combined rebounds with 32.3 per game, with their slow offensive tempo skewing the total slightly. Offensive rebounding has also been a struggle this season, collecting just 8.2 of their own misses per game — ranking 13th out of 14 teams in the league.

Protecting the ball (1.4 assist-to-turnover ratio, T-1 st in AAC) and taking high-percentage shots (.459% as a team, tied for third in AAC) have kept Charlotte in nearly every conference game this season. And while the 49ers’ defense has been among the best in the league, slowing down Amir Abdur-Rahim’s hot-shooting Bulls will be one of their biggest challenges yet.

Scouting USF Bulls

Ranked in the top 25 for the first time in program history, South Florida is having a dream first season under Abdur-Rahim. Following victories over Florida Atlantic and SMU the past two Sundays, it’s safe to say the Bulls are playing among the best teams in the nation and have a chance to secure an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament if they continue their winning ways.

South Florida has shot the lights out from beyond the arc this season (36.2% as a team, second in AAC), and features three players shooting 40 percent or better from outside. Miguel, the team’s leading scorer at 15 points per game, has scored in double-figures in six consecutive games.

Miguel and Chris Youngblood are both 6-foot-4 senior guards, and the duo will test Charlotte’s Pack-line defense early and often in Saturday’s contest. Boding well for Charlotte, guard Isaiah Folkes is known for his defensive prowess, and the 49ers’ best perimeter defender has his work cut out for him against USF.

“I know what I’ve got to do. Being able to guard the best player and frustrate him from the jump is different than coming off the bench,” Folkes said. “I’ve been doing that my whole career.”

Charlotte was the better team for more than 39 minutes in the first matchup between the teams, leading for all but 29 seconds at the Yuengling Center. For Abdur-Rahim, beating Charlotte in dramatic fashion showed his team what it took to win championships.

“It was important because we need to go through games like that to build that grit, that inner toughness that it takes to be a championship team.”

AAC Tournament seeding

With three regular-season games remaining, the Charlotte 49ers are in the driver’s seat for a top 4 seed in the AAC tournament, which would result in a double-bye in the first two rounds in Fort Worth.

Holding the tiebreaker over Florida Atlantic for the No. 2 seed, Charlotte likely needs to win two of its final three games to stay in the top 4. With home games against the Bulls on Saturday, Rice on Wednesday (March 6), and a road trip to Greenville to take on ECU (March 9) left on the schedule, the 49ers have a chance to score their second-consecutive 20-win season for the first time since 2004-05.