Already having three consecutive losses to Power-5 opponents and two conference losses this season, USF’s chances at hosting an NCAA Tournament game in March appeared grim as No. 13 Ohio State came to Tampa on Sunday.
A blowout loss to the Buckeyes would’ve made those chances even grimmer.
From the opening tip, however, Kitija Laksa and the Bulls (20-5, 9-2) looked like a team worthy of a No. 4-seed. Banking off an 18-point first quarter lead, the Bulls maintained their intensity until the final buzzer, upsetting the Buckeyes (20-6) 84-65 in front of 2,576 at the Sun dome.
“I didn’t think we were playing our best basketball,” coach Jose Fernandez said about the Bulls recent play before a win at ECU last Wednesday. “A win like this in February definitely helps our résumé (for the NCAA Tournament).”
Laksa led the Bulls with a career-high 41 points against the Buckeyes, 24 of which came from 3-pointers. Just 14 seconds into the game, Laksa made her first of eight 3-pointers to give USF its first lead of the game. Outside of an 1:28 stretch in the first quarter, the Bulls safely handled that lead until the final buzzer, with the Buckeyes never coming within single-digit points of tying the game after the first quarter.
“She’s a special player,” Fernandez said of Laksa. “When she’s in a zone, she’s just as good as any scorer, shooter in the country. The big thing is she got really good looks. A lot of her looks were open looks and she knocked them down.”
Laksa, who averages 20.2 points per game, came just three points shy of tying Shantia Grace’s single-game USF points record set in 2008.
“My teammates just found me,” Laksa said. “We did everything right, we did everything good, the ball was falling in. And at the same time, the crowd was special. I think just because of the crowd, we won. They were amazing.”
One reason for her open looks came from the play of point guard Laia Flores, who finished the game with 11 assists. Another reason was the Bulls ability to rebound at will, on both ends of the floor. In total, USF pulled down 46 rebounds, 15 of which were offensive, while the Buckeyes had a total of 26.
“I thought the biggest thing we wanted to do was rebound collectively, hold them to one shot, and try and get out and run and score in transition,” Fernandez said. “They had one offensive rebound in the first 20 minutes of basketball. That was the key, it was one-and-out for them.”
While the Bulls leading-scorer, Laksa, had one of the best games of her career, the Bulls limited the Buckeyes leading-scorer, senior guard Kelsey Mitchell, to 19 points and two 3-pointers. Entering Sunday’s tilt, she averaged 24 points a game and was the NCAA leader for made 3-pointers, but met her match in the Bulls’ Laura Ferreira, who guarded Mitchell for a majority of the game.
“We don’t win without (Ferreira),” Maria Jespersen, who scored 20 points Sunday, said. “Her defense was tremendous.”
The Buckeyes are the last ranked opponent left on USF’s schedule until they travel to face UConn on Feb. 26. The Bulls will host SMU (4-8, 10-15) at the Sun Dome on Wednesday. Tip off is set for 7 p.m.