TAMPA — On paper, the teams could seem as close as the numbers 1 and 2.
The USF women's basketball team leads the nation in scoring with a dizzying 89.9 points per game. Its opponent tonight in the Sun Dome ranks second at 88.8. The teams also rank first and second nationally in scoring margin, each winning 13 games by an average of more than 32 points.
In reality, only one team is ranked: undefeated, No. 1 Connecticut, which comes into town to face the high-scoring Bulls, who remain unranked despite a 13-2 start.
USF coach Jose Fernandez, who has faced Connecticut six times since 2002, losing by an average of 17 points, understands the enormous challenge facing his program tonight.
"We're going to need to play above our ability," said Fernandez, whose team hopes to return to the NCAA Tournament after making the Women's NIT the past two seasons. "It'd be definitely the biggest (women's basketball) win in school history and one of the biggest wins in the entire athletic program's history."
The Bulls have played Connecticut relatively close, most memorably in a 2004 game in which they forced overtime on the road before the Huskies prevailed. Fernandez, building up confidence in his team, points out that in five of those games, USF trailed by 12 points or fewer at halftime, by single digits in three of them.
"If you can't get up to play the No. 1 team in the country, you're not going to get up for anybody," he said.
The Bulls take pride in an uptempo style, trying to collect as many possessions as possible with little notice of the shot clock. Thanks to strong guard play, the Bulls lead the nation in steals and turnover margin and trail only Connecticut nationally in assists per game.
"We have to run with them," said senior guard Shantia Grace, the team's leading scorer and a four-year starter. "We have to defend and make shots. We know we can score. We know we can turn people over a lot, but everybody has to play hard."
Most of USF's wins have been against lesser opponents; they have three victories against teams rated in the RPI top 100, but none higher than 30. Cal was ranked third when it faced USF in late November, and the Bulls lost by 30. Connecticut, meanwhile, has had all but two games against top-100 opponents, beating elite programs such as Oklahoma and LSU.
What the Huskies will also bring to town is a huge following. The last time they played in the Sun Dome, the game drew an announced 5,241, the most ever for a USF women's game at home. By comparison, USF has averaged 737 fans in 10 home games this season.
The Bulls hope to bring out more of their own fans, with a "White Out" promotion that will give white T-shirts to the first 500 fans at tonight's game.
"It's exciting to have people watching, to know everybody's eyes are on you," Grace said. "It gets you playing hard all by itself."