TAMPA — The USF women’s basketball team pointed to Wednesday’s home game against Alabama as its toughest test to date, a measuring stick of just how good it might be.
Test passed, but it sure wasn’t easy, ultimately ending in a 67-59 victory for the Bulls, who turned it up in the second half after trailing 29-23 through the first 20 minutes.
“This is a good sign early in the season, because what do good teams do when they get down?” USF coach Jose Fernandez said. “They respond. … At halftime I told the team, ‘Hey, we took 10 more shots than (Alabama) did, and we’re only down six.’ I said, ‘The shots are going to come in the second half, and if you continue to defend things will turn around.’”
The Bulls (4-0) did just that, continuing to defend while their shots started falling, none more so than Sammie Puisis, who had two points in the first half (1-for-6 from the floor) and 24 in the second for a career-high 26. Right with Puisis was guard Elena Tsineke, who had eight points in the first half but finished with 22 for the game.
“At halftime we stayed calm, we knew our shots weren’t falling, but we also knew they were going to start falling,” said Puisis, a junior transfer from Florida State. “We looked at what we were struggling with, and it was the little things — the free throws and the baseline out of bounds and things like that. We cleaned those things up and we started hitting our shots, and that’s what really set us apart.”
USF did a great job on defense pretty much the entire night, particularly on Alabama guard Brittany Davis, who averaged 17 points per game last season and 25 in her first two games this season. With Tsineke guarding her most of the time, Davis finished with just five points on 1-of-9 shooting.
“(Tsineke) showed (Wednesday) she’s one of the best guards in the country, defending and on the offensive end,” Fernandez said.
A few more bright lights for the Bulls included forward Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu (eight points, game-high 12 rebounds and career-high five blocks), freshman guard Carla Brito (10 rebounds) and guard Aerial Wilson (six assists with only one turnover).
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In the beginning, USF looked like it might cruise to another victory similar to the way it had in its first three games (winning by an average of 35 points). In the first six minutes the Bulls got out to a 10-2 lead on the strength of a 10-0 run.
But then Alabama (2-1) went on a 15-5 run to take the lead 17-15 with 6:13 left in the second quarter. The Crimson Tide stretched their lead to the biggest of the night, 29-21, just before the first half ended.
Trailing 36-30 early the third quarter, USF finally switched into higher gear, ripping off a 12-0 run and never losing its lead the rest of the game from the 3:55 mark in the third.
Overall in the second half USF, which received four votes in the AP Top 25 poll, shot 50 percent from the field (12-of-24) and 46.2 percent from 3-point land (6-of-13).
USF now hits the road for the first time this season, traveling to Fort Worth, Texas, for the Maggie Dixon Classic to take on TCU on Sunday. That game kicks of a seven-game stretch where USF plays six on the road.
“We look forward to (the road games),” Tsineke said. “(Wednesday) gives a lot of confidence, because it shows we can beat a really good team. We are very encouraged looking ahead to the rest of the season.”
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