The energy in the USF Sun Dome Monday night was unlike any the venue has seen as USF students, faculty and alumni gathered in the arena to see their team take on a familiar foe — the No. 3 Louisville Cardinals. More than 5,000 fans came out to witness what could have been the No. 6 Bulls’ best run in the NCAA Tournament with a victory over their former conference rival.
As the greatest season in the history of USF women’s basketball came to a close, the home-court advantage wasn’t enough to eclipse Louisville’s strong offensive presence and the Bulls’ defense had trouble responding, with the Cardinals coming away with a 60-52 victory.
Louisville’s Shawnta’ Dyer was a force off the bench and finished with 10 points and four rebounds. Her aggressive play down low was too much for USF forwards Alisia Jenkins and Laura Ferreira, who came away with only a combined three offensive rebounds.
“We were thinking we had the game,” said USF guard Courtney Williams. “I think Louisville just did a good job of pounding it in the paint. They were aggressive but they still got their shots to fall.”
Louisville (27-6) started the game shooting lights out and made its first four field goals while grabbing an early double-digit lead. Ferreira battled back and dropped two 3-pointers in under a minute to get the Bulls back on track in the first five minutes of the game. USF (27-8) was 5-of-8 from beyond the arc in the first half and made four of those shots in only three minutes to bring them back into contention and cut the Cardinals’ lead to just two points.
Williams hit the floor hard after tripping, which resulted in another turnover for the Bulls, one of 16 on the night. She was nursing a hurt knee for the remainder of the game and seemed off on her shooting motion. Even with Louisville pressuring Williams and her lingering injury, she still led USF in scoring with eight points in the first half.
The Cardinals had USF figured out early on in the post and grabbed eight offensive rebounds in the first half while scoring four points from second-chance opportunities. As a team, Louisville out-rebounded the Bulls 21-14 in the first half. Bria Smith was a big factor for Louisville off the bench and grabbed five rebounds of her own to help the Cardinals take their 28-23 lead into the half.
The Bulls looked like they were starting a rally after Ferreira sunk her third 3-pointer with 17:42 left in the game. However, the Cardinals got the ball back and after a jump shot from Sara Hammond and a lay-up off a USF turnover dropped for Myisha Hines-Allen, the Bulls saw the deficit double to eight.
USF didn’t lead at any point in the first half, but came out after halftime looking to make a comeback. Ferreira got another 3-pointer to drop in the opening minutes to cut the Louisville lead to just four.
With less than 12 minutes to play, USF remained in the game, with Williams taking the ball by herself to get the hard lay-up, which cut the deficit to just three points. Williams improved her shooting in the second half and came away with 25 total points and seven rebounds.
The game was a back-and-forth affair for the remainder of regulation. While Louisville led for the first 35 minutes of the game, the Bulls kept themselves within reach and the fans on the edge of their seats.
With five minutes left, Jenkins got a lay-up to drop that gave USF the lead for the first time all game. With time winding down, the Bulls seemed to be moving on to their first Sweet 16 appearance. Their excitement would be short-lived, however, as the Cardinals quickly took back the lead with four straight trips down the court resulting in points.
Despite another great effort from Williams, the Cardinals were too physical for the team to handle and grabbed 45 team rebounds to USF’s 32. Down the stretch, Louisville was just too well-equipped for the Bulls and ended the game on a 14-5 run to re-gain the lead.
“I thought (Louisville) just closed the game, especially with us taking the lead late,” said coach Jose Fernandez. “They imposed their will in the paint. We’ve done a great job rebounding all year and tonight we didn’t do that.”
When the final buzzer sounded, the Bulls stood in front of their fans for the final playing of the alma mater this season after a devastating loss. Coming up short to Louisville wasn’t in the Bulls’ plans, but with all but two players returning next year, the future is bright for USF.
Ferreira fought back tears after the game to share her excitement for the future of the program. Despite the loss, there is a lot of potential in the team, with all five starters returning next season.
“I have three more years and I’m ready to keep playing,” Ferreira said. “This defeat only makes us stronger and we’re just going to keep working hard to get better.”
Fernandez said he felt for his team after the loss, especially with so many players being a part of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in their careers.
“It hurts,” Fernandez said. “With this team being so young you’ve got to be put in this position and feel the pain in that locker room to make sure you don’t feel it again.”
For Williams, next season starts tomorrow. After she nurses her injured knee back to health, she said she will be ready to get back to work and make an even deeper run into the post-season in her senior season next year.
“We’ve got to get back to work during the summer time,” Williams said. “For us to be successful next season, everyone has to have a great summer. We can’t be complacent with where we are now.”