The USF women’s basketball team got the job done Sunday, but the rest of Conference USA failed to provide some assistance, ending the Bulls’ season.
The Bulls (14-13, 4-10 in C-USA) entered Sunday in a three-way tie with East Carolina and Southern Miss for the 12th and final spot in the C-USA Tournament next weekend in Chicago. A loss meant the Bulls’ run would end, but even a victory would not be enough. USF needed wins from Tulane, Saint Louis and Charlotte to nail down a bid to the tourney. The Green Wave and the Billikens responded, but the 49ers were unable to knock off Southern Miss in Hattiesburg, meaning the Golden Eagles, not the Bulls, will continue their season.
“It hurts not going, but we put ourselves in that position,” USF coach Jose Fernandez said. “When you can’t control your own destiny, that can happen. But, I’m pleased, we went 14-13 and we accomplished some great things in one year.”
The Bulls granted lone senior Dione Smith her only wish on her last home game as they shot above 50 percent from the field to win, going away from the Tigers 80-61. Smith went scoreless in her final regular-season game, as she was hampered with four fouls late in the game, but C-USA’s and USF’s all-time steals leader made her presence felt on defense, adding five more thefts to her total while contributing five assists.
“I don’t care if I (foul out) at the 18-minute mark as long as we got the win,” Smith said. “However much I could contribute to the game, that’s what felt good to me … I feel good that we got above the .500 mark. I don’t feel good because we underachieved ourselves. We go 4-10 in our conference play and we wanted to go 7-7, and we didn’t achieve that goal. Coming out of a winning season, right now, it feels good. On the flip side, it doesn’t feel too good because we didn’t achieve a lot of our goals.”
USF wouldn’t have needed the aid of the Green Wave and the 49ers, but Saint Louis managed to rally from an 11-point second-half deficit to defeat the Bulls 82-77 Friday.
The Bulls’ defense was stellar on the weekend, forcing the Billikens (12-14, 5-8) and Tigers (11-16, 5-9) into 52 turnovers. However, USF may have had its finest stretch against the Billikens Friday.
Trailing 29-20 with 7:58 to go in the first half, Fernandez turned to his full-court trap. The Bulls responded with a 16-0 run during the course of the next three and a half minutes. From 6:26 to 4:39, SLU couldn’t even attempt a shot. The Bulls had five straight steals in the backcourt en route to a 36-29 advantage.
“That was pretty fun to watch,” Fernandez said. “We were able to play 10 kids and we scored 45 points in the first half.”
A basket by Aiya Shepard gave USF its biggest lead at 62-51 with 13:36 to go in the contest. The Billikens slowly whittled down the Bulls’ margin using pinpoint free throw shooting. SLU attempted 16 more free throws than USF in the second half, and the Billikens were a mesmerizing 90.5 percent from the line in the period, connecting on four straight in the final 17 seconds.
“It hurts because of how hard the kids played,” Fernandez said. “We shot 26 more shots and forced 29 turnovers. They had six fouls in the second half and we had 14. It fathoms me how we didn’t shoot more free throws.”
- Anthony Gagliano covers women’s basketball and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org