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Freshman Laksa’s 29 points fuels USF’s rout of rival Knights

Freshman Kitija Laksa made 7-of-10 3-point attempts in USF’s 88-49 win over UCF — one shy of her career best. ORACLE PHOTO/CHUCK MULLER

ORLANDO — With standout senior forward Alisia Jenkins in a walking boot, the Bulls were once again challenged to find a way to stay on track without a key variable in their equation.

After grinding out 41 rebounds in an 88-49 domination on the road at in-state rival UCF Sunday afternoon, it appears the Bulls roster — from top to bottom — is ready and able to fill the void.

USF (13-5, 6-2) got off to a slow start, as the Knights (4-15, 1-7) began the game challenging the Bulls physically and controlling the boards in hopes of slowing down USF’s aggressive offensive tempo. 

However, the Bulls soon began to separate themselves.

With the Knights controlling the majority of the first quarter, USF went on a 7-3 run to start the second frame with two quick 3-pointers from freshman forward Kitijia Laksa and senior guard Courtney Williams. 

This gave USF a one-point lead with 7:35 remaining in the second quarter. This forced the Knights to call a timeout after relinquishing an early lead they never recovered.

“I think we found our groove and we shared the ball really well,” coach Jose Fernandez said on starting out slow en route to a 39-point win for the Bulls. “I was really happy with how we did taking care of (the ball) and sharing it. That first half, we didn’t shoot a good number, but I thought we defended really well.”

USF was stout defensively, holding their opponent to under 50 points for only the third time all year and the first since keeping Oklahoma State to just 46 points on Dec. 20.

This was USF’s 19th-straight victory over UCF. The Bulls have not lost a contest to the Knights since Dec. 10, 1980.

Containing UCF’s leading scorer, junior guard Zykira Lewis, was key in the defensive effort, holding her to only 12 points in 30 minutes. The Knights’ sixth all-time leading scorer just came off back-to-back 20-point games before being slowed down by Williams for most of the afternoon.

Williams had yet another prolific afternoon for the Bulls, leading the team with 8 rebounds to go with 20 points — 9-of-17 (52.9 percent) from the floor. 

The senior is the fourth all-time leading scorer in program history, now trailing Wanda Guyton’s third-place mark of 1,820 by only five points.

To compliment Williams, Kitjia Laksa had another stellar performance, leading the Bulls on the afternoon with 29 points. The Latvian native went 7-for-10 from behind the arc, one shy of her career-high eight on Jan. 7 in her coming-out party against SMU (38 points).

The Bulls were able to empty their bench as the fourth quarter came to a close, allowing reserves to see playing time that will prove valuable in the AAC tournament and beyond, with Laksa’s emergence being a prime example.

“Anytime you want (to) do that, you want to get a lot of players involved,” Fernandez said. “That way, we can find some guys that are going to help us out the rest of the year.”

The Bulls return home to the Sun Dome to host Houston (4-14, 0-7) Wednesday night at 7 p.m.