The Bulls’ top two scorers took turns dominating Florida International University on Thursday night at the Sun Dome, leading USF to a 96-73 victory.
Point guard Shantia Grace thwarted a 17-7 run by the Golden Panthers with her 17 points in the second half to ensure USF its seventh straight victory to open the season.
After trailing 56-27 at halftime, FIU responded by outscoring the Bulls 46-40 in the second half.
“I thought we played our best offensive half of the year during the first half,” coach Jose Fernandez said. “And I think we played our worst second half of the year.”
At one point USF (7-0) led 60-30, but the Golden Panthers slowly chipped away at the lead as guard LaQuetta Ferguson scored 24 points and pulled FIU to within 13.
“We weren’t worried, we just played a little more laid back in the second half, which we shouldn’t,” Grace said. “We started the half badly, but we knew we had to step up if we wanted to win.”
Along with a career-high 26 points, Grace finished with five rebounds and six assists.
USF opened the game with senior Jessica Dickson scoring 17 of the team’s first 34 points, including a stretch where the forward made four three-pointers in less than four minutes.
“I was feeling it in the first half. I came in early and shot before the game,” Dickson said. “It’s been a while since I’ve done that.”
With six three-pointers, Dickson tied teammates Jessica Jackson, Alana Tanksley and Angie Snyder for the team single-game record in shots made from behind the arc.
Dickson finished with a season-high 30 points, seven shy of her career-high set last season against Rutgers. Forward Nalini Miller led the team with 15 rebounds and helped USF to a 50-40 edge on the glass.
USF now leads the all-time series with Florida International 9-8, and the home victory improved their home record to 33-5 during the past two seasons. The Bulls need one more win to tie the record for most consecutive victories to open a season.
“Shantia and the other girls did a good job recognizing Dickson was playing well,” Fernandez said. “We try and take advantage of mismatches we have, and both Shantia and Jessica (Dickson) did a good job of that tonight.”
Coming into the game, Grace and Dickson shared the team lead with 18.8 points per game, tying them for second in the Big East.
While on a fast break, Dickson faked her defender by dribbling behind her back and then finding a wide-open Grace for a three-pointer.
“I saw the girl coming up and I said, ‘Oh my goodness, what am I going to do?’ and I went behind my back,” Dickson said. “I saw Shantia running and just passed it to her, and she hit the shot.”Grace added, “I taught her that.”