USF women hang with South Carolina for a half before succumbing down stretch

An aggressive non-conference schedule had immunized USF’s women against hostile environments and heralded opponents, and it showed Sunday.

For 20 minutes in the NCAA Tournament’s second round against undefeated South Carolina, USF (27-7) was far more of a pain than a pushover to the reigning national champs. Before a capacity crowd on the Gamecocks’ home floor, the Bulls built an early five-point lead and still led nearly 14 minutes in.

They made 3-pointers, got steals on the perimeter and created all the chaos they could muster in the paint.

“I think (the moment) didn’t faze us,” veteran coach Jose Fernandez said. “There wasn’t a question on preparation and excitement and them coming in and not being starstruck.”

But while never overwhelmed, the Bulls ultimately were overmatched.

Down by only two at the outset of the second half, the Bulls managed only five field goals in the last 20 minutes as the Gamecocks (34-0) pulled away for a 76-45 triumph at Colonial Life Arena. Behind 6-foot-5 senior Aliyah Boston (11 points, 11 rebounds), South Carolina owned the interior in the second half and finished with a 55-28 rebound advantage.

“I thought they just really assaulted the glass, and at some points their best offense was the second shot,” said Fernandez, whose team finished with eight offensive boards to South Carolina’s 24. “That’s what hurt us.”

But before Boston and Co. took over in the low block, the Bulls were crafting a surreal script.

USF led 16-12 after one quarter, marking only the seventh time this season South Carolina has trailed after the first 10 minutes. At that point, the Bulls owned a 10-9 rebounding edge and had helped force five Gamecocks turnovers.

They still led well into the second, when Sammie Puisis’ baseline 3-pointer gave them a 20-19 edge with 6:30 to play in the half. Only 2-of-18 from 3-point range in an opening-round overtime win against Marquette, the Bulls went 4-of-9 from long range in Sunday’s first half.

“They missed shots in the first half and we made some, and we just kept within striking distance,” Fernandez said. “I thought our kids came out and we were ready to play.”

But Puisis’ basket gave the Bulls the last lead they’d possess. After freshman Carla Brito’s two free throws cut South Carolina’s lead to 33-31 with 8:19 to play in the third, the Gamecocks finished the quarter with a 19-5 run. Early in that surge, 6-4 Bulls senior Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu (four points, eight rebounds) picked up her third personal foul.

Fellow senior Elena Tsineke, who shared American Athletic Conference Player of the Year honors with Fankam Mendjiadeu, picked up her third less than two minutes later.

“Their physicality started to kick in on us, so I guess we just couldn’t really keep up with that,” said Tsineke, who finished with a team-high 20 points. “But overall I’m very proud of our group. We fought, but they were the better team and they were more athletic, so credit to them.”

South Carolina scored the first six points of the fourth quarter to take a 58-36 lead and essentially seal things. The Bulls finished 5-of-28 from the floor in the second half, and were out-rebounded 32-12 in that span.

“What I told our team, ‘Don’t let this define the year that we had,’ ” said Fernandez, whose club tied the program’s season record for victories and won the AAC regular-season crown. “It just got away from us, got away from us in that third quarter.”

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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