Bulls knock out Eagles

With the victory, the women’s basketball team tied its record for wins in a season.

Usually known for its offensive prowess, the women’s basketball team’s defense clamped down to propel the Bulls to a 66-49 victory over Coppin State in the second round of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament.

Led by senior Nalini Miller’s single-game record of nine blocks, the Bulls (21-11) didn’t allow a field goal in the final nine minutes of the game to surpass the Eagles. USF finished the game with a team record of 16 blocks.

“Nalini Miller did a great job coming from the help side, she was able to anticipate a lot of shots,” coach Jose Fernandez said. “We work a lot on blocked shots in practice.”

Coppin State’s 27.4 percent field goal percentage was the lowest by a Bulls opponent all season.

With the game tied at 46, USF outscored the Eagles 20-3 to close out the game and advance to the third round of the WNIT, where the Bulls will face Virginia.The ability to close out the game was exactly what Fernandez was counting on a week after his team was passed over for the NCAA Tournament.

“When it was tied at 46, we got three or four stops that were crucial in the game,” Fernandez said. “I like the response … (the seniors) made those plays and it would have been the last game if we lose. Our seniors have to play like it’s their last game.”

After Rashadia Suber tied the game at 46 with a three-pointer, the Bulls stepped up defensively and forced the Eagles (25-8) to commit six turnovers and miss their final 11 shots.

“I think it was something that clicked, we were tied and Rachel (Sheats) got a defensive stop and scored (to get us going),” senior Jessica Dickson said. “We were flowing and I think our defense was able to create our offense.”

In what could be the final game at the Sun Dome this season, Dickson tacked on 24 more points to bring her career total to 2,390, the most ever scored by any USF player. Monday marked the 16th time Dickson surpassed the 20-point plateau this season.

“It was in the back of my mind that this could be the last game, and the seniors stepped up knowing that,” Dickson said. “I think we did a good job.”

Along with a career-high nine blocks, Miller finished with six points and six rebounds in just 16 minutes of play. Sheats chipped in with 14 points, four steals and three assists.

For the first time all season, Shantia Grace, the team’s second-leading scorer and leader in assists, didn’t start. The sophomore played only 25 minutes while coming off the bench for just the second time in her career.

“We started the four seniors and we played a lot of people,” Fernandez said. “We wanted to get a lot of kids involved and make sure we were fresh in the second half.”

All 12 active players on the roster saw playing time Monday.

Playing for the first time in 15 days, the Bulls were a little sluggish to open the contest, shooting 36 percent in the first half and committing eight turnovers to just seven assists.

“I knew we were going to come out and play a little sloppy because we haven’t played in two weeks,” Fernandez said. “Our turnovers were up and we allowed 20 offensive rebounds.”

The win marks just the second postseason victory in the program’s 35-year history. USF’s first win came in the opening round of the WNIT against Florida in 2005.

With Virginia defeating Charlotte 74-72, the Bulls must travel to face the Cavaliers on Thursday at 7 p.m. USF is 4-6 on the road and dropped its final four games away from the Sun Dome this season.

“We just have to go out and play like we did tonight, just more aggressive at the beginning of the game,” Miller said. “We can’t wait until the last few minutes to start playing, we have to play all 40, especially on the road.”