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Bulls drop consecutive games for first time this season

It just wasn’t enough.

USF opened the second half with nine straight points and outscored Pittsburgh by 11 after the half, but the Panthers were able to hold on for a 69-65 victory.

Pittsburgh (19-5, 7-4) saw its 15-point halftime lead trimmed down to two with just over a minute left to play, but USF couldn’t get the defensive stops it needed to steal a victory.

“There were two or three loose balls where we just couldn’t get the rebound,” forward Jessica Dickson said. “That was very crucial because we had the lead down to two at that point.”

Point guard Shantia Grace led all scorers with 23 points, but her efforts weren’t enough for the Bulls (17-7, 7-4) to overcome a dismal 2-18 shooting performance from Dickson.

She came into the game as the Big East Conference’s second leading scorer with 20.5 points per game, but had her worst outing since going 1-13 against Southeastern Louisiana as a sophomore. Dickson’s 10 points were enough to match her season low set in a previous game against the Panthers.

“We played really well defensively,” Pittsburgh coach Agnus Berenato said. “We played a multitude of players on Jessica. We felt like she could get her points but to do that she would have to take 25 shots. That was our goal.”

The Panthers jumped to an early lead after the Bulls connected on only one of their first seven attempts from the field. USF closed the first half shooting 28 percent.

Pittsburgh guard Shavonte Zellous, the conference’s third leading scorer, recorded 15 first-half points, helping her team to a 43-28 first-half advantage.

First-half struggles are nothing new for the Bulls.

“We were down big against them at halftime. That happened when we were at Pittsburgh and at Rutgers,” coach Jose Fernandez said. “At home you can’t get in a hole like that.”

The two teams saw their roles reversed during the game’s final 20 minutes, as Zellous only added two more points and the Panthers shot 25 percent.

Poor free throw shooting doomed the Bulls during the final two minutes, however, as the Bulls missed three critical free throws. As a team, USF shot 61.5 percent from the line.

The loss snapped a six-game home win streak for the Bulls and marked their fourth loss to Pittsburgh in two seasons. USF now owns a 13-2 home record with only two more games remaining at the Sun Dome.

Pittsburgh and USF are now tied for fifth place in the Big East with West Virginia just behind them with a record of 7-5 in conference play. The top four seeds earn a first-round bye in the conference tournament.

USF is 2-5 on the road against conference opponents and play three of their next five away from home.

“Now we’ll have to steal a couple on the road,” Fernandez said. “Because we are an up-tempo team, giving us (one) less game would be more beneficial to us.”

While the Bulls are fighting for a higher seed in the conference tournament, Fernandez knows his team will have a difficult time reaching their second consecutive NCAA Tournament berth with so many quality teams in the conference.

“I think 10 (conference) wins gets you (into the NCAA Tournament) automatically,” Fernandez said. “I don’t know if nine (wins) will get you in this year. There are so many good teams (in the conference) but how many are they going to take from our league?”