A record 6,634 fans bedecked in blue and green funneled into the Sun Dome on Sunday, with hype and excitement comparable to March Madness.
The USF women’s basketball team (10-4, 3-1) came out of the gate firing on all cylinders, appearing up to the challenge of hosting perennial No. 1 UConn (14-0, 4-0).
But the early emotion of the first meeting between ranked teams at the Sun Dome was soon replaced with the familiar sense of control for which the Huskies have become notorious, as UConn pulled away from USF in the end for a 75-59 victory.
“(You’ve got to) hand it to them,” USF coach Jose Fernandez remarked after the loss.
“That 9-0 run in the fourth quarter that extended (the lead), and then it exploded to 21-22, and we cut it to 12. But we’re not going to beat them shooting 32 percent from the field like we did.”
Taking a page out of the Huskies playbook, the Bulls came out fast, going on a 14-6 run to start the game.
Freshman guard Kitija Laksa, the hero from Thursday’s win against SMU, came out with a 3-pointer that got the Bulls into an early rhythm in the biggest regular season test on this side of the new year.
USF looked for players like Laksa to step up in the absence of the program’s all-time leading rebounder, senior forward Alisia Jenkins, who sat out her second straight game after sustaining a left leg injury versus UCF.
As the first quarter came to an end, the pace began to slow, allowing UConn to get into its offensive sets and eventually take a 33-28 lead into halftime.
The Huskies took that momentum and the lead into the second half, remaining in control for the majority of the third quarter, until a string of uncharacteristic fouls called against UConn — who have committed the least number of fouls in the country — allowed USF to fight back into the game.
The Bulls were able to pick up on their torrid start shooting the ball in the first half, cutting the game to a 9-point deficit after closing the third quarter on two more Laksa three-pointers.
However, those baskets were quickly forgotten, as the Huskies opened up the fourth quarter with a trio of threes from forwards Morgan Tuck and Katie Lou Samuelson to go up 62-44 with eight minutes left in the game.
“It’s UConn; they go on runs. You just have to answer,” senior guard Courtney Williams said.
“We knew what we were getting into; we knew they were going to go on runs. I think all we had to do was answer, and we couldn’t do that.”
The Bulls continued to fight, responding with three quick threes that cut the game to 69-57 with 3:34 remaining. The late rally by USF proved to be too little too late as USF was unable to get within single digits in the final frame.
UConn extends its winning streak to 49 games, dating back to November of 2014 when the Huskies lost on the road in overtime to Stanford. Prior to that loss, UConn held another 49 game winning streak.
Today’s 12-point loss did prove to be the closest margin of victory for the Huskies since joining the American Athletic Conference, giving the Bulls something to hang their hat on.
“I think we have to look (at the loss) in a positive light,” Williams said after the game.
“We just played the No. 1 team in the country. When tournament time comes around, we’ve already played the best of the best three times. So I think we’re prepared to play anyone in the country now.”