Even though USF coach Jose Fernandez saw Sunday’s game against UAB as a lose-lose situation, the Bulls managed to come up with a few positives by beating the Blazers 73-64 in the Conference USA opener for both teams.
The Bulls recorded their 11th win, marking a seven-game improvement from last season. That ties the USF record for biggest single-season turnaround set by the 1976-77 team. That team rebounded from an 8-12 season in ’75-76 to go 15-4.
The victory also equaled the Bulls’ number of conference wins a year ago in Fernandez’s first campaign. The victory will still be tainted in the eyes of some, as the Bulls defeated the Blazers without third-team All-American Deanna Jackson.
“I know when you look at the score, yeah they didn’t have their best player, Deanna Jackson,” Fernandez said. “This is a lose-lose situation. We lose this game, yeah we’re supposed to lose it, we’re picked 14th in the league. We win this game, and now it’s they don’t have their best player. We don’t have Jen Kline either. She’s our (second) leading scorer. So, I know that’s a comment that’s going to be brought up around the league and that’s my answer to it.”
Minus Jackson, the C-USA Player of the Year and the nation’s leading scorer, UAB (8-6) never led and dropped its sixth game of the season. Averaging more than 25 points and 11 rebounds per game, Jackson did not make the trip because she suffered a broken fibula in the Blazers last game, Dec. 29, against Ball State.
Without Kline, sidelined for at least three more weeks with a stress fracture in her fibula, the Bulls (11-3) jumped out to a lead early in the first half behind hot three-point shooting and some aggressive hustle. Aiya Shepard came up with a pair of steals, which she salvaged by throwing the ball back into play while diving out of bounds. The second one led to a pull-up jump shot on a fast break by Melissa Tape that put the Bulls up 25-8.
USF didn’t even attempt a two-point basket until nearly four minutes into the game. The Bulls made their first three treys en route to connecting on 7-of-19 in the first half. A 14-2 UAB run cut the Bulls lead to 27-22, but back-to-back threes from Tristen Webb and Alana Tanksley made it 33-22.
“It’s no secret we got to use the three-pointer,” Fernandez said. “We’ve been taking them all year. Shoot, we’ve taken over 400 in 13 games.”
In Jackson’s absence, Natasha Thomas was the Blazers’ offense, accounting for 20 of UAB’s 33 first half points. The 6-foot-2 sophomore had 60.6 percent of UAB’s first-half points. Thomas also added eight rebounds while shooting 9-of-11 from the floor before the half.
“I thought she was going to have 40 tonight,” Fernandez said. “She had 20 at the break. She’s an excellent player, and we knew she had to step up with Deanna gone. She’s averaging 18 anyway.”
The Bulls started strong in the second half, running off a 7-0 spurt to start. The momentum continued from there, including a shot clock-beating 27-foot three-pointer from Dione Smith.
The Blazers clawed back within five at 63-58 with a three-point play from Shaquetta Rhodes. However, a three-point play from Ashley Teets and a drive to the basket from Shepard kept USF’s lead at eight in the final minutes and ensured a Bulls victory.
“I was really just happy with the overall team effort and how hard the girls played,” Fernandez said. “There’s been a lot of games this year where we didn’t play for the entire 40 minutes.
“I’m just pleased at how well the girls kept their composure and that we were able to keep the lead and knock down some key baskets down the stretch.