It was March Madness at its finest.
Perhaps it was the pre-game good luck video from NBA star Kobe Bryant to California that helped the No. 2 seed Golden Bears beat the No. 10 seed Bulls, 82-78, in overtime Monday night in the Bulls’ first second-round appearance in the NCAA Tournament in school history.
With California giving up a 14-point lead in the last seven minutes of the second half and missing from the line, the luck from Bryant may have very well done it.
Though the Bulls (22-10, 9-7) did not find themselves in their first-ever spot in the Sweet 16, USF certainly didn’t hang its dancing shoes without a fight.
With 0.7 seconds left on the clock in the second half of play and USF trailing by three points, junior forward Inga Orekhova found herself at the line for three free throws.
It was the second time in 20 seconds that California (29-3, 7-1) fouled USF from beyond the arch. A foul against senior Andrea Smith, playing with a pesky left knee injury, allowed her to hit two of her free throws.
Smith’s free throws had the Bulls down 69-67 after Orekhova drained a three on the previous possession.
A shot at taking the game into overtime was up to Orekhova, and after an 11-point first half in which she shot from deep, Orekhova sank all three free throws to keep USF’s hope at the Sweet 16 alive.
As her last free throw found the bottom of the net, cheers came from USF’s bench.
It was hard to believe that USF was down 13 points minutes ago.
Orekhova found her groove after going about 15 minutes without a single point between the first and second half.
With California going 44 percent from the line in the second half and USF feeling the pressure of the clock being forced to foul, the Golden Bears’ inability to sink free throws dug them into a hole.
But in overtime, it was the Bulls who found themselves missing free throws.
The night started with USF struggling to find a way to keep up with the fast-paced style of play coming from California as the Bulls found themselves down 5-0 about three minutes in.
The Golden Bears maintained their slight lead over USF as Orekhova continued to shine after her impressive performance in the Bull’s first NCAA tournament win on Saturday.
Orekhova finished the game with 22 points, while senior guards Andrea and Andrell Smith ended their USF careers for 15th and 16th highest All-Time Scorers, respectively.
As the Bulls fly back to Tampa, the smiles seen on the court after their last minute comeback are likely to follow the team home.
“It’s going to hurt but this is something that they’re going to remember for a lifetime,” coach Jose Fernandez said. “For our underclassmen, it’s going to give us fuel in the spring and summer to get us back here.”