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Bulls earn win over in-state rival

USF 75, North Florida 68

The USF women’s basketball team earned its fourth straight win, a 75-68 victory over the University of North Florida Lady Ospreys on Wednesday night. But once again it failed to impress many people­ – including coach Jose Fernandez.

“I think we could have played much better defensively,” Fernandez said. “We went 21 of 38 from the (free throw) line, and a lot of those were front ends and one-and-ones.”

The Bulls (6-2) played against a UNF team that seemed to play much more physically than USF. The Lady Ospreys (2-5) knocked the Bulls around with a suffocating defense. Senior forward ChiChi Okpaleke hit the floor so hard she came out of the game with a bruise on her forearm.

“Any time you play an in-state team you are in for a tough game,” Fernandez said. “They came out and played their best game against a Big East team, and we didn’t play our best.”

The game was physical from the opening tip, and USF was unable to do enough to put the game away. The Bulls led by as much as 13 points in the first half, but UNF ended the half on a 12-4 run that cut the lead to four.

A familiar problem hurt the Bulls once again: if a physical UNF defense wasn’t enough to give the Bulls fits, 11 first-half turnovers couldn’t help.

In the second half, USF again managed to get a big lead, but the Bulls let costly mistakes and poor free throw shooting keep the game close. On the night, USF shot just 21-38 (55 percent) from the charity stripe. The Bulls also turned the ball over 19 times – the most during any game of their four-game winning streak.

“We left a lot of points on the free throw line,” Fernandez said. “We haven’t shot 70 percent from the free throw line in one game this season. Then we think we fixed the turnover problem – and we’re back up to 19. If we play like this in the Big East, we’re not going to win many games.”

Despite a lot of negatives for the Bulls, two players caught Fernandez’s attention for the right reasons.

“I was very proud of Gianna Messina and ChiChi Okpaleke,” Fernandez said. “I think they both played with a lot of effort.”

Messina had a better outing offensively in her second start of the season. She scored a career-high 15 points and grabbed four rebounds.

Despite being banged up by a physical UNF defense, Okpaleke also had a big night in her return to the starting lineup. After playing in a reserve role for five games, Okpaleke scored 12 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and had two steals in 30 minutes.

Another concern going further into the season is the wear and tear on junior guard Shantia Grace. In the last two games, Grace has played 77 of the last 80 minutes.

As conference play starts to creep closer, Fernandez understands the urgency of fixing the problems plaguing his team.

“We’ve got good enough players, but we only have two kids in (Shantia) and Okpaleke who have played in this (conference),” Fernandez said. “I told the team that we need to start playing better at home, because if we can’t win here, we aren’t going to win anywhere else.”