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Fernandez questions team’s toughness in loss to No. 9 Louisville

Despite a 15-3 record, coach Jose Fernandez called his team “soft” after the Bulls’ 66-52 loss to No. 9 Louisville on Sunday. ORACLE PHOTO/JACOB HOAG

No. 23 USF women’s basketball has had no trouble dispatching unranked competition this season, going 15-1 against such teams.

But the Bulls’ 66-52 loss to No. 9 Louisville at the Sun Dome on Sunday caused USF coach Jose Fernandez to criticize his team’s physicality and toughness.

“Right now that’s our M.O.,” Fernandez said. “South Florida doesn’t like contact, they’re soft and they’re finesse, and that showed today. That’s the one thing we’ve been stressing…here’s the thing, we’re at home and that shouldn’t happen at home, or anywhere.”

USF struggled to keep up with Louisville in the paint all afternoon as the Bulls were out-rebounded by 21 boards. 

“The shot goes up and we have to be individually accountable, and we weren’t,” Fernandez said. “That’s what I told them three guys. I told Pujol, Jespersen and Laksa, ‘We can’t win without you.’ And those first 20 minutes were atrocious.”

By halftime, Louisville held a 38-25 lead as only two Bulls players, Flores and forward Tamara Henshaw, had scored more than one basket. 

“The excuses of us being a young team and the four starters, all that is past us, it’s the end of January and we’ve played like 18 games,” Fernandez said. “But this is the type of game you need to win to get to the second weekend in March and we’re not ready yet. This team isn’t ready.” 

The Cardinals focused their defensive pressure on USF forwards Kitija Laksa and Maria Jespersen, limiting them to a combined 11 points on 5-of-23 shooting. 

Though the Bulls’ leading scorers were contained for most of the game, guard Laia Flores kept USF within striking distance with 12 first-half points. 

“(Jespersen) and (Laksa) can flat out shoot the basketball,” Cardinals coach Jeff Walz said. “We’ve had 17 games to go back and watch and when they get going, they change the dynamic of the whole team. I had the opportunity to watch their Memphis game on TV and (Jespersen) was unbelievable. I mean, coming off of flare-screens, knocking 3’s down, so we came into this knowing we had to do whatever we can to limit those two and then see what we could do with the rest.”

USF will return to conference play Wednesday when the Bulls travel to SMU to as they look to move to 5-1 in the AAC.