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USF women can’t sustain first-half momentum in loss to UConn

The Bulls lead by as many as eight in the first half before the No. 5 Huskies storm back
Connecticut's Megan Walker, left, drives past USF's Shae Leverett during the second half of the Huskies' 67-47 triumph Sunday at the Yuengling Center. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson) [MIKE CARLSON | AP]

TAMPA ― For a mesmerizing spell Sunday afternoon, USF’s women appeared poised to slay their figurative white whale with 3-point daggers.

The Bulls wounded Connecticut with their long-range barrage, tenacity on the glass and generally superior hustle. At halftime, USF led by four, and the Huskies seemed on the hook.

Then, before you could say Geno and the juggernauts, they were off.

The fifth-ranked Huskies (21-3, 11-0 American Athletic Conference) limited USF to six field goals in the final 20 minutes to pull away for a 67-47 victory before the fourth-largest home audience (6,044) in Bulls women’s history.

Related: For now, USF-UConn rivalry ending, but what if it never started?

“I thought the first half, we got good wide-open shots and we knocked ‘em down,” Bulls coach Jose Fernandez said. “I thought Connecticut just played at a different pace ― different energy, different pace ― in the second half on both ends of the floor.”

UConn now is 30-0 all-time against USF. Meeting No. 31 will come in non-conference play, but no sooner than 2022. The Huskies are headed for the Big East, ending a 15-season rivalry against the Bulls as a conference foe.

“Yes, very sad (they’re leaving),” said Fernandez, noting a home-and-home non-conference series tentatively is set to begin in Connecticut in ‘22. “They brought great credibility to our conference. Our players enjoyed playing them and I enjoyed coaching against them.”

Speaking of credibility, the unranked Bulls (15-10, 7-4) collected it in spades Sunday, at least early on.

Their shooters darting around the perimeter at will, the Bulls made their first four 3-pointers and were 5-for-6 from long range after one quarter, when they led 19-13. They took their biggest lead of the day, 21-13, when 6-foot freshman Kristyna Brabencova’s steal led to a Sydni Harvey transition layup at the second quarter’s outset.

At halftime, the Bulls still led 29-25, and owned a 23-16 rebounding advantage.

Related: USF men can't overcome 11-point first half in 56-48 loss to Tulsa

“They are really good at wearing you down, so they’ll change sides of the floor two or three times,” Auriemma said. “And the minute you make a mistake, turn your head, anything, they’re able to get in the lane. You’re looking to see where they went, and then they’re finding the open 3-point shooter.”

The open looks vanished in the second half, when UConn began closing hard on the Bulls shooters and allowed one uncontested 3-pointer. Meantime, the Huskies offense started flowing behind 6-5 sophomore Olivia Nelson-Odoba, who scored 12 of her 20 points after halftime.

UConn went 18-for-29 (62.1 percent) from the floor in the second half and finished with a 42-18 scoring advantage in the paint. USF went 6-for-25 (24 percent) after halftime, hitting one of eight 3-pointers.

“We broke down,” Fernandez said. "But this team will continue to get better and we’ll learn from this stuff. A lot of guys in that locker room have never experienced this before.”