Bulls can’t hang on against No. 16 Tennessee

Junior guard Elisa Pinzan hit a clutch three with 45 seconds left to put USF up by two points against Tennessee on Monday, but it ultimately wasn’t enough as the Lady Vols quickly took the lead right back. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

The USF women’s basketball team took a seven-point lead into halftime and a six-point advantage into the fourth quarter, but ultimately couldn’t finish off the No. 16 ranked Tennessee Lady Vols in a 52-49 loss Monday.

Junior guard Jordan Horston of Tennessee was the main catalyst behind the Lady Vols’ (3-0) comeback effort. The Ohio native dropped a game-high 24 points and scored the go-ahead, and-one layup to tie the game and subsequently hit a free throw to put her team up by a point with 39 seconds left to play, a lead the Lady Vols would never relinquish.

“I think [Horston is] long,” coach Jose Fernandez said. “She’s tough to defend because she’s so big as a guard, so she can pull up and shoot over our guys … We were trying to take her right hand away as much as possible and make her go left … Her size and athleticism [is what ultimately made her hard to defend].”

Struggling to stop Horston wasn’t the only thing that led to USF’s (2-1) first loss, however, as the Bulls shot a dismal 18-of-63 from the field and scored just five points in the fourth quarter. The Bulls went on a 6:14 scoring drought in the final frame that saw them miss 10 consecutive shots.

“We’ve got a veteran group in there in that fourth quarter, they’ve played in high-level games,” Fernandez said. “You’re up six and you miss a layup, even the first shot of the fourth quarter on a baseline, out-of-bounds [play], that’s a wide-open three [and] it’s an airball.

“You’re on the road, you’ve got to make those shots. That’s the disappointing thing for us because I thought in the fourth quarter, we’re up six, we’re a good offensive team, we’re going to make people defend us the entire shot clock, but we just didn’t finish.”

Another issue for USF was containing junior center Tamari Key, who had a height advantage on every Bull that came her way. Key finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds, as well as getting some of USF’s taller players in foul trouble, most notably senior center Shae Leverett, who fouled out with 2:52 left to play.

The Bulls switched to a 2-3 zone in the fourth quarter in an attempt to stymie the damage Key was doing, but were forced to go back to man-to-man down the stretch.

“I got sick and tired of them throwing it to Key inside, and we got the stops we needed when we went [with a] 2-3 zone,” Fernandez said. “Those were five straight [stops], but then we’re going empty on the other side. Now there’s a minute and a half left and they put a couple shooters in off that timeout, [so] we had to go back to man.”

Picking up a road win against a talented SEC opponent would have been huge for the Bulls, as they need quality wins like the one they had potential to earn Monday come March.

All is not lost for USF, however. It’s for this reason the program consistently schedules such a difficult nonconference slate, to get the hiccups out of the way before playoff time, according to Fernandez.

“It happened to us. We’re to blame for it, but that’s why you play these types of games,” Fernandez said. “It’s a long race, these are the games that hopefully you get experience in and they don’t happen [later] and they prepare you for March.”

The Bulls return to the floor Saturday in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament against Syracuse in Paradise Island, Bahamas. The game is scheduled to begin at 2:30 p.m. and will be televised on FloHoops and broadcast on Bulls Unlimited 2.