USF (26-8, 13-3) found itself in an unfamiliar position at the end of Saturday’s opening round game of the NCAA Tournament at the Tucker Center in Tallahassee – on the wrong side of a route to a team not named UConn.
The sixth-seeded Bulls were eliminated from the tournament in the first round for the second straight year, falling to the 11th-seeded Buffalo Bulls 102-79. The loss marks the first time USF has allowed an opponent other than UConn to score 100 points since they allowed FAU to score 101 on Dec. 28, 2001.
“Buffalo was really, really good,” coach Jose Fernandez said. “That’s what sports is all about – and the NCAA Tournament. And you’ve got to give them credit – they played really, really well.”
USF came into the tournament as the No. 6 seed in the Albany region – a seed that many associated with USF, including Fernandez, thought was too low. In addition to ending the regular season with the most wins in program history (24), USF entered the tournament with the 14th best RPI in the nation, partially due to wins over LSU and Ohio State – who entered the tournament ranked 29th and 6th in RPI respectively.
The game started out well for the higher seeded Bulls. USF finished the first quarter with a 20-11 lead and held Buffalo to only 33 percent shooting from the field. Senior forward Maria Jespersen led the way with 13 points and eight rebounds over the game’s first 10 minutes.
Then, it all went wrong for the Bulls in green and gold.
Buffalo ended the first half on a 20-7 run and took a 43-38 lead into halftime. Buffalo would then outscore USF 59-41 in the second half, including shooting 53 percent from behind the three-point line in the game’s final 20 minutes.
While Buffalo was exploding, USF was imploding. USF turned the ball over a total of 16 times over the entire game, leading to 25 points off turnovers for Buffalo.
“I think the points off of turnovers really hurt,” Fernandez said. “We had 10 turnovers at halftime – and that’s a big number that strikes at you.”
Buffalo was able to collect 11 offensive rebounds, which led to 18 second chance points for the lower-seeded Bulls. Additionally, USF committed 21 fouls, which led to Buffalo going 22-24 from the free throw line.
Buffalo was led offensively by junior guard Cierra Dillard, who led all scorers with 36 points. Junior forward Courtney Wilkins scored 23 of the 25 points off the bench for Buffalo, including going 5-8 from beyond the three-point line.
Junior guard Kitija Laksa led all USF scorers with 28 points. Jespersen would finish with her AAC-leading 18th double-double of the season, scoring 23 points and collecting 11 rebounds.
For USF, the loss marks the end of an era, as the USF careers of seniors Jespersen and Laia Flores come to a close. The duo finish as USF’s winningest senior class, with 101 wins, and as the only senior class to make four trips to the NCAA Tournament.
Jespersen finishes her USF career in 10th place in program history in scoring with 1,462 points, passing Renee Bellamy (1990-94) thanks to her performance Saturday. Flores’ 217 assists in 2017-18 solidify her season as the new USF single-season record for assists, surpassing herself from 2016-17.