TALLAHASSEE — For the better part of four months, USF's women defied conventional thinking. Thin on depth and national acclaim, the unranked Bulls blocked out everything from pessimism to plantar fascia injuries.
But in the end, they couldn't block out Sierra Michaelis.
The Missouri senior's uncontested put-back with 0.6 seconds remaining lifted the sixth-seeded Tigers to a 66-64 triumph against the 11th-seeded Bulls in Friday's opening round of the NCAA Tournament at the Donald L. Tucker Center.
Moments earlier, the Bulls (24-9) — who used only six players — seem poised to scrap their way to the second round after Kitija Laksa tied the score with a running 3-pointer from near the top of the key with 3.3 seconds to go.
"It's tough to be on this end of it," Bulls coach Jose Fernandez said, "because we haven't been on this end of that type of loss in a long time."
Compounding the excruciation: It probably could have been avoided.
Missouri (22-10) called a timeout after Laksa's 3-pointer and in-bounded from halfcourt. With two Bulls in her grill, freshman Amber Smith hoisted an ugly heave from near the left block. Whether it was an airball that barely nicked the rim or lob to Michaelis seems irrelevant today.
Michaelis caught it right beneath the basket and easily laid it in for her first winner, she says, since a 3-pointer in AAU her junior year of high school.
"I think I was just in the right place at the right time," said Michaelis, who scored 13 of her 16 points after halftime. "I don't remember much of it."
"We switched on that lob; we were there," Fernandez said.
"But sometimes if you look at those type of games, we don't get beat on the first one, we get beat on the second one. That's what happened. … It was a contested shot, and we just watched."
They also watched a commanding 13-point halftime lead evaporate.
In what would serve as a harbinger of the whole game, USF trailed 9-0 four minutes in, then scored the next 12.
But their most astounding run — a 16-3 surge — came midway through the second quarter, highlighted by four consecutive 3-pointers. Junior point guard Laia Flores had two, the latter of which capped a 13-0 run and gave USF a 34-22 lead. An ensuing Laksa 3-pointer and free throw gave the Bulls a 38-25 lead at halftime.
That proficiency never emerged from the locker room in the second half.
USF missed its first nine field goals after halftime. The drought ended when Flores hit a 3-pointer with 4:43 to go, but her technical foul a minute later resulted in a five-point possession for Missouri that cut the Bulls lead to 41-37.
USF finished 2-of-15 from the floor in the quarter, and 7-of-24 for the second half. Yet thanks to a couple of missed Missouri free throws in the last 16 seconds, they still had a chance at the end.
The bitter end.
"It's sad," Laksa said. "But at the same time it was just us five players on the floor and we didn't do our job, and we let them score in the last second."
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.