Bulls bounce Cincy 84-65 on senior night

Maria Jespersen scored 26 points and recorded 16 rebouonds Saturday night. The double-double was her AAC-leading 17th of the season. ORACLE PHOTO/ CHAVELI GUZMAN

On senior night, USF (24-5, 13-2) seniors had a night to remember as USF romped Cincinnati (17-11, 9-6) 84-65 behind a 26 point, 16 rebound effort by senior forward Maria Jespersen. 

Jespersen’s double-double was her AAC-leading 17th of the season.

“I think as soon as you start playing the game, you forget it’s your last,” Jespersen said, fighting back tears. “It didn’t really hit me until (coach Jose Fernandez) subbed me out. I even told him, ‘Don’t sub me out, don’t sub me out.’ And he did. And as soon as I went out there and the crowd stood up and clapping for me and Laia (Flores), I was just like – I couldn’t hold it back anymore. This place has meant so much to me, and it’s just – it’s really sad that it’s over.”

Jespersen’s classmate Laia Flores recorded a season-high 12 assists in her final regular season game at the Sun Dome.

“We talked to the team after the ceremony and after honoring us, and we said, ‘Well, like, that’s nice and stuff, but we’ve got a game to play,’” Flores said. “We just need to focus on the game, and that’s what we did.”

Flores sits at second in career assists in program history with 480 and holds the single-season assist record with 200 in the 2016-17 season. Flores’ 12 assists Saturday moves her 2017-18 effort into a tie for second place all time with Anedera Gilmore (2004-05) at 190 with one final regular season game to go.

Jespersen is currently sixth in program history in career rebounds with 851 and can tie Jessica Lawson (2007-10) with 12 more rebounds. Jespersen’s 12 rebounds Saturday moved her 2017-18 season into ninth all-time in program history with 285 and is one shy of Courtney Williams (2015-16) in eighth place with 286. Jespersen’s 2016-17 campaign sits in seventh all-time with 297 rebounds.

Jespersen and Flores are USF’s winningest senior class in program history, with 99 wins. The duo likely will become the first senior class to make four consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. 

Neither senior ever imagined the success they would have when they arrived in Tampa in 2014.

“I didn’t even know what the NCAA tournament was when I got here,” Jespersen said.

“We were just lucky to come in on a really great team with really great players that taught us a lot,” Jespersen continued. “And when they stepped out of the program, then it was our turn to step up … I’ve said it before, but I wouldn’t have wished for any other outcome of these four years. It’s been the perfect college experience for me. But now we have to finish it the right way.”

Fernandez praised his outgoing senior class.

“For those two seniors, it’s been an emotional week,” Fernandez said. “For what they meant to our program, not only as teammates, but as people and as student-athletes here at the University of South Florida. They’ve been really, really special to our program and to this university.”

While the seniors were the spotlight of the night, three other Bulls in addition to Jespersen scored in double figures. Junior guard Kitija Laksa scored 22 points, sophomore center Alyssa Rader scored 13 points and junior guard Laura Ferreira scored 12 points.

For USF, the win against Cincinnati secures the program’s second one-loss home record in a season. The only other time the Bulls were able to accomplish such a feat was in 2015-16.

Up next for USF is a trip to Storrs, Connecticut, to take on UConn Monday at 7 p.m. The game will be televised nationally on ESPN2. The Bulls fell to the Huskies 100-49 on Jan. 6 at the Sun Dome.