Short-handed Bulls lead UConn at half, but can’t hold on

The Bulls go cold down the stretch in a 57-47 loss at the Yuengling Center
USF's Shae Leverett, left, defends against Connecticut's Napheesa Collier (24) during the second half of Monday's game at the Yuengling Center. (AP Photo/Steve Nesius)
USF's Shae Leverett, left, defends against Connecticut's Napheesa Collier (24) during the second half of Monday's game at the Yuengling Center. (AP Photo/Steve Nesius)
Published March 5, 2019|Updated March 5, 2019

TAMPA ― To help honor USF fifth-year senior Laura Ferreira, sidelined the last two months with a heart condition, Connecticut agreed to surrender an uncontested layup to the Portugal native to start Monday night’s regular season finale.

At several surreal points, it appeared that poignance would give way to pandemonium.

The injury-ravaged Bulls nearly turned Tampa ― and the entire women’s college hoops landscape ― on its head Monday night. Down by one possession to the No. 2 Huskies (28-2, 16-0 AAC) with fewer than three minutes remaining, the Bulls (16-14, 7-9) went cold down the stretch as UConn pulled away for a 57-47 triumph.

The consolation: The Bulls, who suited up only nine players (not counting Ferreira), led UConn at halftime. The Huskies have trailed at the half of an American Athletic Conference team only twice in 117 games, and both were against USF: Monday night and in February 2016.

“Playing these guys is never easy,” said Huskies coach Geno Auriemma, who was without 6-foot-3 two-time All-American Katie Lou Samuelson (back spasms). “They just have a style of play that grinds it out, grinds it out.”

A jumper by Bulls guard Enna Pehadzic cut UConn’s lead to 48-47 with 6:26 to play, but USF never scored again, missing its last seven field goals.

“I told our guys in the locker room the one thing that I was very proud of was their effort today,” said Bulls coach Jose Fernandez, who suited up only nine players (not counting Ferreira).

“Down the stretch we just struggled to make some plays, and they’ve got some guys on their team with some experience.”

Before a Yuengling Center audience of 5,614, the Bulls jumped out to a 17-11 after the first quarter. At that point, USF held a 13-6 rebounding advantage and hadn’t allowed the Huskies an offensive board. UConn missed its first five 3-pointers until Crystal Dangerfield hit one from the right wing at the buzzer.

“We knew going in without Lou (Samuelson) it was gonna be hard to get anything done in the lane,” Auriemma said. “They’re not gonna stretch out on anybody other than Lou, so we knew the lane was gonna be packed and you’re gonna have to make a bunch of (3-pointers) and we didn’t.”

Dangerfield’s basket started an 8-0 UConn run. The Huskies took their first lead of the night, 21-19, on Napheesa Collier’s short jumper with 5:50 to play in the first half. But they managed one field goal the rest of the half as USF took a 29-25 lead to the locker room.

The 25 points were fewest in a half this season for UConn, which shot 32 percent from the floor (8-for-25) and went 1-for-7 from 3-point range in the first 20 minutes.

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The Bulls, meantime, weren’t much better from the floor (12-for-31), but committed only four turnovers and scored 14 points in the paint, with eight second-chance points.

“Those first 20 minutes, I thought we did a really, really good job defending and rebounding,” Fernandez said.

Forty-one seconds into the second half, USF’s lead had evaporated. The Bulls committed eight turnovers in the first 3:10 of the half as the Huskies went on a 13-2 run for a 38-32 lead.

But they failed to build on it, shooting 4-for-15 (26.7 percent) from 3-point range for the game and committing 15 turnovers. Their six fast-break points were a season-low.

“That point in the third quarter, we could’ve gotten knocked out and it didn’t happen,” Fernandez said. “We fought back.”

And nearly delivered a haymaker to the collegiate world order.

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.