Initially flustered by Houston's pressure and pace, the 18th-ranked USF women rallied Wednesday night in two simple steps.
First, they settled themselves down, then shut the Cougars down.
Down by 10 in the first half, the Bulls stormed back for a critical 81-65 triumph before an announced Sun Dome audience of 2,223. The obvious game-changer: a 21-1 USF surge stretching from late in the second period until early in the third.
With the victory, the Bulls (23-5, 12-2) clinched the No. 2 seed in the upcoming American Athletic Conference tournament, meaning any matchup against top-ranked Connecticut wouldn't occur until the title game.
USF held Houston (20-8, 9-5) without a field goal for 6 1/2 minutes during its decisive run, highlighted by consecutive 3-pointers from junior Kitija Laksa (32 points) and senior Maria Jespersen (19 points, 11 rebounds) that gave the Bulls a 42-33 halftime lead.
"We needed to play through their physicality and play through fouls because Houston averages I think 24-25 fouls a game," said Bulls coach Jose Fernandez, whose team hit 27 of 31 free throws. "We needed to meet passes and play through that physicality."
That physicality and fleetness set the early tempo. The AAC's top 3-point defensive team (26.8 percent), Houston held the Bulls to one trey in their first seven tries, and forced eight turnovers in the first 15 minutes.
USF had only four over the next 15. Jespersen's double-double was her 16th of the season. Senior point guard Laia Flores added 11 assists in 40 minutes.
"I just feel like they came and really pressed us, and we just didn't make the right decisions (initially)," Flores said. "But then we settled down and we were just fine."