After enduring three straight games in which it was done in by runs from the opposition, the USF women’s basketball team turned the tables Sunday, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
Down 41-32 with 16:22 to play in the second half, the Bulls reeled off 18 straight points and held on to defeat No. 23 Tulane 69-64. The victory snapped USF’s three-game losing streak and the Bulls’ 16-game slide on the road in Conference USA.
“No one thought that we could beat Tulane and that gave us all the more reason to beat them,” junior Aiya Shepard said. “We were tired of losing, so we came together and when we come together, we win.”
The Bulls’ skid started Jan. 11 when Marquette used a 11-0 run to close the first half, distancing themselves from USF, en route to a 16-point victory. A pair of half-opening runs determined the Bulls fate against DePaul, while the coup de grace came against Southern Miss when the Golden Eagles fashioned a 23-1 run during the final seven minutes to erase a 55-55 tie.
“We need to focus on defense when we have a lull on offense,” USF coach Jose Fernandez said. “We need to buckle down on defense and create some easy fast break points. After the DePaul loss and losing the game at the end vs. Southern Miss, we had to come to play for 40 minutes.”
The Bulls (12-6, 2-3 in C-USA) managed all this without leading scorer Sonia Cotton. The junior sat out the game and did not dress, even though she didn’t violate any team or school policies. Fernandez said it was merely his decision not to play the Bulls’ leading scorer and rebounder. Fernandez added that Cotton was healthy enough to play. Cotton declined to comment further on the matter.
In Cotton’s absence, Shepard rebounded from her two-point effort Thursday vs. Southern Miss to lead the Bulls in scoring with 25 points in addition to converting on 4-of-6 free throws in the final 14 seconds. Prior to the Southern Miss game, Shepard led the Bulls in scoring in their two previous outings with 14 and 25 points against Marquette and DePaul, respectively.
“I’m more happy with the way the team played than the way I played,” Shepard said. “I’m just satisfied I contributed after we lost three straight.”
Shepard was integral to the Bulls’ attack down the stretch, scoring seven of USF’s nine points, all at the free-throw line.
“The one thing that we had to do against Tulane was to control the tempo, especially with a seven or eight-point lead,” Fernandez said. “We took the shot clock, isolated Aiya and put the ball in her hands. We liked the matchups and we knew she would score or get fouled. It just happened she got to the line.”
Following USF’s big run, the Bulls extended the lead to 12 points at 7:05 on a Shepard layup. Slowly though, the Green Wave (15-5, 3-2) nibbled through USF’s margin, whittling it down to six with 1:02 left on a Teana McIver putback. McIver led Tulane with 17 points and added 10 rebounds, but her foul trouble limited her to 25 minutes. McIver had plenty of help from Tiffany Wilson, who had a memorable game, notching the first start and double-double of her career with 16 points and 13 boards.
“They have three kids over 6-foot-3, so our game plan was to play as much zone as possible,” Fernandez said. “If we got (Gwen) Slaughter and McIver in foul trouble, then we knew that we could match up on defense.”
Tulane still had a chance, as buckets by McIver and Sarah Goree brought the Green Wave within two at 66-64 with six seconds remaining. Shepard then knocked down one of two free throws with five seconds left, and she put the finishing touches on the USF upset by sinking both free throws to end the game.
“This is a huge win on the road and over a ranked team on the road,” Fernandez said. “South Florida hasn’t had much success on the road, especially at Tulane. It’s nice to look at the box score and see that Sarah Lochmann had nine points and 10 rebounds. Everybody just contributed.”
- Anthony Gagliano covers women’s basketball and can be reached at email@example.com