No. 3 Connecticut 81 | USF 67
Records were set Tuesday night, but none were in the Bulls’ favor.
No. 3 Connecticut clinched a record 15th Big East Conference regular-season title after defeating USF 81-67 in front of a woman’s basketball all-time high 5,241 fans in the Sun Dome.
The Huskies (25-2, 14-0) were led by freshman center Tina Charles, as she tallied a career-high 34 points and surpassed Connecticut’s rookie record of 235 rebounds in a season after recording 17.
“(Charles) was tough to defend; she got seven offensive rebounds and probably scored on all seven of them,” coach Jose Fernandez said. “Overall, I was happy with our energy and our rebounding.”
During the first half, the Bulls (18-9, 8-6) were able to keep pace with the No. 3 team in the nation, as Jessica Dickson scored nine points despite picking up two fouls during the opening minutes of the game.
Dickson and Shantia Grace combined for 19 points and five rebounds in the first half, but after halftime the duo only managed to score nine points.
While USF’s two leading scorers struggled, center Nalini Miller recorded 16 of her team-high 18 points over the final 20 minutes of the game, marking the second time this year she led the Bulls in scoring.
Connecticut took advantage of the lack of offensive output and went on a 12-0 run that put the game out of reach for the Bulls.
“We can’t go into scoring droughts. Especially against a team like Connecticut,” Miller said. “It was really tough to overcome (the run) by them.”
Dickson finished with 11 points and five rebounds, snapping a streak of three consecutive double-doubles. Dickson needs just 24 more points to break Charlie Bradley’s career scoring record of 2,319. Her next opportunity to break the record comes Saturday when the Bulls play at No. 19 Marquette.
Although USF was able to play well against one of the most dominant teams in the conference, Fernandez expressed his frustration in continually coming up short against top-tier opponents.
“The thing is, we did the same thing against LSU and Vanderbilt,” Fernandez said. “For our program to take that next step, we have to start winning some of these games.”
Tuesday marked the second straight game against Connecticut in which the attendance record was broken – 3,702 fans saw the Huskies defeat USF 72-56 on Dec. 28, 2002.
The lower bowl of the stadium was filled with the usual green and gold USF is accustomed to, but the upper portion of the stadium was dominated by navy and white.
After the game, most of those remaining in attendance were cheering on the Huskies for clinching yet another championship. The large following is nothing unusual for Connecticut.
“They’re fanatical. There’s something about them, they love the team,” Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. “We average about 17,000 at the Civic Center every year since we’ve played there. The last two years it’s been down to about 14,000 and change. Where are those two thousand people? Well, we found out – they’re all in Tampa.”
USF is now tied with Pittsburgh for sixth place in the Big East, but after falling to the Panthers twice earlier this year, the Bulls’ chances of clinching a first-round bye are bleak.
Seeking its second consecutive NCAA Tournament berth is not out of the question, but the team knows it has to start producing victories to finish the regular season and as in the conference tournament as well to achieve the goal.
“We have to win our next two games,” Miller said. “And we can’t just show up for the first round of Big East Tournament (like last year). We have to get as many victories as we can if we want to get back there.”