Seniors lead Bulls to home victory

Seven seniors were honored on Senior Day at the Sun Dome on Saturday, when leadership proved to be the difference.

USF (20-9, 7-8) didn’t make it look easy, as the Bulls almost blew a 25-point lead, but strung together several big runs to help the senior class win its final regular-season home game 84-78 over Cincinnati.

Senior Shantia Grace eclipsed the 1,820-point mark with Saturday’s 19-point performance, making her the second-highest scorer in program history.

“I wasn’t thinking about it, honestly,” she said. “I just wanted to play hard and win in front of friends and family. But it’s a great accomplishment to be in the record books.” 

Grace said she and her teammates felt pressure to finish her home career on the right note.

“We love to win — we love to be competitive,” Grace said. “For it to be Senior Night, no one wants to lose on their special night. We just wanted to come out and play hard and get this win.”

The Bulls came out of the gate with a 12-2 run, managing a 25-point lead midway through the first half. The team shot over 87 percent from the free-throw line and more than 60 percent from the field.

Entering the second half, it looked as if USF would cruise to its second consecutive victory — but it didn’t turn out that way.

The Bearcats clawed their way back to cut the lead to two with less than three minutes

“In the second half, we just didn’t guard anybody,” said USF coach Jose Fernandez. “We quit playing.”

The Bulls thwarted the late Cincinnati charge, however, with an 8-4 run of their own, capped by two late free throws by Grace. Senior guard Jazmine Sepulveda, who finished with a career-high 13 assists, said Fernandez pushed them late in the game.

“Coach was telling us the importance of this game, and we need to win,” she said.

In Grace’s first season with the Bulls, USF went to its first NCAA tournament. In her last few weeks as a Bull, she hopes to help her team experience that again.

“We felt like celebrities. We were on top of the world,” Grace said of her NCAA tournament trip. “The whole experience was great, so I want (the team) to feel it, too.”

Fernandez said 22 wins should get the Bulls a bid into the tournament. USF goes for its 21st victory at 7 tonight at Villanova.

The Wildcats have won eight of their last 11 and are in fourth place in the Big East.