After 20 minutes of play against the Duke Blue Devils, the USF women’s basketball team trudged to its locker room staring at a 23-point deficit.
During the second half, the Bulls let the game slip further and further out of reach, as they lost 89-52 to the first of eight ranked opponents on their schedule this season.
USF was playing Duke as part of the ESPNU Women’s Basketball Invitational double-header. The game, which was broadcast nationally on ESPNU, allowed USF to showcase its talent to the entire country. The USF/Duke game preceded a game featuring defending NCAA Champion Tennessee playing Oklahoma in another non-conference showdown.
Despite the fact that the game was at the St. Pete Times Forum, home of the NCAA women’s Final Four in March, the crowd was overwhelmingly orange, the color of the Tennessee Lady Vols.
After Thursday night’s performance against a strong non-conference opponent, the Bulls looked like they needed a lot of work in order to compete with the stronger teams in their own conference, let alone the rest of the nation.
Despite being on the court with powerhouse Duke, the Bulls were playing like they didn’t belong in the same league. USF was out-shot, out-rebounded and out-played by a team that looked much better in all aspects of the game.
USF did hold a lead at one point in the contest – 4-2 with 18:31 to play in the first half – but Duke took command and never looked back.
The Bulls were less than impressive in the first half. USF shot a dismal 18 percent from the field and turned the ball over 16 times.
For the second straight game, USF had to deal with starting players getting into foul trouble. Center Jessica Lawson picked up her third foul just 10 minutes into the game. Shantia Grace – who was expected to step up her game after Jessica Dickson’s departure – picked up four first-half fouls. That caused her to play a much more passive game defensively in the second half.
“(The fouls) affected (my game) a lot,” Grace said. “It affected me defensively. It changed the way I play my game.”
With the foul trouble came confusion. Coach Jose Fernandez thought there may have been an error while marking down Grace’s foul total.
“We had her marked down with three,” Fernandez said. “I thought that the first foul was actually on (Jazmine Sepulveda). If I thought she had three, I wouldn’t have been playing her so much in the first half.”
The second half didn’t get any better for USF. Lawson fouled out just two minutes into the half, causing the Bulls to play without their best post player. She finished the game with only five points in 15 minutes of work.
Off the bench, USF saw Porche Grant and backup center Melissa Dalembert foul out. During the young season, Fernandez has been satisfied with the depth of his team. However, he was quick to realize why the bench – which was outscored by Duke’s 47-18 – was ineffective.
“Bethune-Cookman and Duke are at two opposite ends of the spectrum,” Fernandez said. “It’s a luxury to play a lot of players against a team like Bethune-Cookman. We had to play our bench for the wrong reasons tonight.”
Grace and senior forward ChiChi Okpaleke both tried to pick up the scoring burden for the Bulls, but it was too late. They finished with 12 and 9 points, respectively.
For the night, USF had 22 turnovers and shot 27.7 percent from the field. The Blue Devils had 15 and shot 46.3 percent. They also out-rebounded USF 55-42.
USF has serious work to do if they hope to make it back to the NCAA tournament in March. With the loss, USF is 1-7 in its last eight games against ranked opponents. USF needs to perform better against the seven ranked opponents remaining.
A 1-6 record against ranked opponents last season was a key factor in the Bulls’ playing in the National Invitation Tournament instead of the NCAA Championships.
Despite the 37-point loss, USF can look forward to playing the next three games at the Sun Dome.
On Saturday, USF plays New Hampshire. On Sunday the Bulls will play host to Illinois State. While neither team can be compared to Duke, Fernandez feels that both games will be tough for the team.
“I told our guys that you can’t keep your head down for long,” Fernandez said. “We have New Hampshire on Saturday, then Illinois State is expected to win their conference and make the NCAA tournament.”