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Bulls beat Syracuse with late surge

USF 78 Syracuse 61

A routine layup made all the difference for Nalini Miller and the women’s basketball team, helping the Bulls to a 78-61 victory over Syracuse.

Miller missed her first three shot attempts of the game, including two layups, as the Bulls (15-5, 5-2) were off to another slow start on the road.

USF started the game shooting 2-11 from the field and appeared to be heading to another disastrous performance on the road against the Orange (8-12, 2-6). The Bulls suffered their two worst losses of the season to Pittsburgh and Rutgers in their last outings away from the Sun Dome.

Daiane Packer found Miller on a fast break, giving the Bulls a 19-16 advantage and Miller the confidence to carry the team for the rest of the game.

“I’m not even going to lie … after struggling I said, ‘If I don’t make this layup, I’m through for the night,’ ” Miller said. “I made the shot and said to myself, ‘I have to keep on playing,’ because this is a team effort.”

During her previous three seasons, Miller would get down after missing a few shots and take herself out of the game. She knew that for the Bulls to end their two-game road losing steak, she had to remain focused.

Miller concluded the night with 23 points and 15 rebounds and earned her fourth double-double of the season.

Over the Bulls’ last four games, Miller averaged 17.75 points per game and 12.25 rebounds per game. In USF’s first 16 games of the season, she averaged 6.6 points and 7.7 rebounds.

“I’ve just taken my time. If I missed a shot then forget about it, just play defense and get the next shot,” Miller said. “I just stay focused and get the next point, or block or rebound. That’s been my mindset this year.”

Prior to the game, Jose Fernandez dubbed it a “must-win” and was pleased with his teams’ response.

“We got out, created the tempo and knocked down some shots,” Fernandez said. “Any time you can go on the road and get a win, it’s a good thing.”

As Miller progressed, point guard Shantia Grace, the Bulls’ second leading scorer, has struggled during the Bulls’ previous four outings, shooting 26.2 percent from the field and only 8.2 points per game, down from 15.9 points on the season.

Grace stepped up to finish with 22 points, six rebounds and four assists on 10-19 shooting. The Bulls had enjoyed eight days of rest since falling to Pittsburgh last Saturday.

“The week off really helped me,” Grace said. “I had a little more free time and went into the gym and did more shooting. I just let the shots come to me today.”

The win ties the Bulls with Louisville and Rutgers for third place in the Big East. Fernandez likes the position his team is in as the top four teams in the conference receive a first-round bye in the conference tournament.

He added, “We’re 15-5 and in third place in the Big East, we’re in a good spot right now.”