TAMPA — Playing in the cavernous, echoing Yuengling Center Tuesday night, the USF women’s basketball team looked for the longest time like it might have a chance to pull off the upset against fourth-ranked Baylor, which would have been one of the biggest victories in program history.
But in the end — despite a feisty, relentless effort from the Bulls — Baylor’s muscle, particularly in the post, proved too much down the stretch.
Final score: Baylor 67, USF 62.
“It was definitely a game decided in the post,” USF coach Jose Fernandez said. “It was great to see us fight to stay in the game, but Baylor has two of the best post players in the country (6-foot-3 Queen Egbo and 6-2 Nalyssa Smith), and that makes it tough.”
Egbo finished with a game-high 25 points and 11 rebounds, and Smith chipped in six points and 10 rebounds. Perhaps the most telling of those statistics was the rebounds, where Baylor enjoyed a 50-37 advantage.
Undoubtedly, a big cheering crowd against such a formidable opponent would have helped. But because no fans are permitted to watch Bulls’ home games due to the coronavirus pandemic, the home-court advantage may have been a bit compromised.
“You have to create your own energy, and that’s a challenge,” Fernandez said. “That’s just the way it is.”
Fans or not, USF never quit, not when Baylor (2-0) took a 10-point lead in the third quarter and not when the Bears went ahead by seven with less than two minutes remaining in the game. Both times, USF (1-1) fought back to cut the gap to three. In the waning seconds, the Bulls missed a couple of 3-pointers that could have made the difference.
USF guard Maria Alvarez made many of those long-range shots to keep the Bulls in the game. Alvarez finished with a team-high 18 points, including 13 in the third quarter. Center Bethy Mununga chipped in 13 points and 10 rebounds but seemed to struggle against the strength and size of Egbo and Smith as the game wore on.
Many things went the Bulls’ way, in the first quarter, particularly in the shooting department. USF finished the first 10 minutes converting 50 percent of its shots from the field.
But then it cooled way off.
By halftime, USF’s shooting percentage had dropped to 32.1 percent, which wasn’t much better than Baylor’s (28.9 percent). The Bulls missed all nine of their attempts from behind the 3-point line.
Despite its second-quarter shooting woes, USF trailed just 29-28 at the half and had held Egbo to only three points and Smith to two.
“It’s good to play a game like this early on against such a great opponent,” Fernandez said. “It should help us.”
In three previous meetings against USF, Baylor had basically been in control, except for last year’s game. USF pulled within one point midway through the third quarter and stayed close until the Bears pulled away in the final minutes for a 58-46 victory.
The Bulls will barely be able to catch their breath. On Saturday, they host Mississippi State, which entered the week ranked No. 6.