On the night the program lifted last year’s AAC regular-season and tournament championship banners to the rafters of the Yuengling Center, USF women’s basketball’s 63-56 win over Texas-Rio Grande Valley didn’t feel like a celebration.
There were many moments when the No. 21 Bulls (1-0) were given all they could handle from the Vaqueros (0-1), who kept the deficit to single digits for much of the second half after falling behind 23-12 at the end of the opening quarter.
Despite allowing the Vaqueros to get as close as five points in the fourth quarter, coach Jose Fernandez’s squad managed to lock up the victory after forcing three turnovers in the final 10 minutes.
“We didn’t deserve to win tonight,” Fernandez said. “We won because, guess what, we made some more plays than they did. But today you go on the road or even at home, you’re going to lose a crucial game. You’re at home, you got to play better than we played just now.”
The Bulls looked every bit of a top-25 team coming out of the gate, shooting 57% from the field, 100% from three-point range, forcing seven turnovers and holding the Vaqueros to just 12 points on 4-of-14 shooting.
Things began to go amiss in the second quarter as the Bulls started to see their lead dwindle to seven at the half due to some defensive miscues and poor shooting that would plague them for the rest of the game.
After its 58% performance in the first quarter, USF never shot above 35% for the remainder of the game, including 21% in the second and fourth quarter.
The poor shooting wasn’t the issue, however, as the defensive miscues were the larger problem, according to Fernandez.
UTRGV shot 43.8% and 54.5% in the second and third quarters, respectively, cutting USF’s lead to as little as four with just over nine minutes remaining in the third quarter.
“The offensive end wasn’t the problem in the first half, [the] defensive end was,” Fernandez said.
One of the bright spots for USF was the performance of sophomore guard Elena Tsineke, who led the team with 18 points and picked up right where she left off last season by making the AAC All-Conference First Team and the All-Tournament Team.
Tsineke made her first six shots before a hand injury forced her to leave the game for a few minutes and threw off her rhythm. She shot 20% the rest of the way following her hot start.
“To be honest, it hurt so it kind of affected my momentum a little bit,” Tsineke said. “I was trying at the same time to forget about it and keep going through the pain.”
The Bulls will have very little time to process this effort as they prepare to welcome Alabama State on Thursday.
One thing became perfectly clear, USF didn’t live up to its own standard Tuesday night. And with multiple top 25 teams on the schedule over the next several weeks, they need to play at the level of a team seen by many as one of the best in the country.
“I feel like that was a good game to realize we absolutely need to be way more hard on ourselves,” Tsineke said.
“Treat it like we are actually in the top 25 in the country because this is not the right way to go. The game today wasn’t the right way to show who we are and what we can really do, because if you ask me, that wasn’t us.”
Next up for USF is a game against Alabama State on Thursday at 7 p.m. The game will be streamed on ESPN+ and broadcast on Bulls Unlimited.