But it's impossible to truly grasp how stunning USF's eventual 68-66 loss was without a bit of context.
It didn't seem very likely that St. Mary's had what it took to overcome the 21-point halftime deficit they faced, if not due to the size of the hole they found themselves in then certainly because of the way they opened the second half.
On the first possession, point guard Shannon Mauldin turned the ball over on a bad pass from point to win that San Francisco Dons senior Taj Winston easily stepped in front of a predictable pass from point to wing. On their second possession, Mauldin was credited with turning the ball over again on a pass that sailed out of bounds as they were trying to advance it up the sideline against USF pressure.
After turning the ball over 8 times for a whopping 20 USF points off turnovers in the first half, it looked like nothing was going to change in the second period - the opportunity to make adjustments at halftime seemed to do little to change the rhythm of the game, which USF had established in the first minute of the game and never let go of in the process of mounting a 24-point first half lead.
It was organized chaos from the very beginning and St. Mary's just didn't appear to have what it took to keep up.
So it wasn't a fluke that USF had mounted a 24-point first half lead: USF had just been that good and St. Mary's equally bad. The Dons were definitely fired up to make up for their lackluster performance in the previous game; maybe the Gaels had just looked past them. And at some point -- as the Gaels seemed to be throwing the ball every which way but the basket in the first half -- it seemed that they were just as shocked as everyone else that they were getting so thoroughly dominated with leading scorer Lauren Nicholson going 0-for-4 with two fouls in the first half as she struggled to keep up with Dons guards; with USF coming off that disastrous loss to Pacific, there was really no way to predict that they'd come out playing at peak capacity (or maybe even beyond that) against a St. Mary's team that has been among the West Coast Conference's elite in recent years.
Nevertheless, the Gaels somehow ended up with possession of the ball in a tie game with 13 seconds left.
Again, a whole lot had to go wrong in the second half for USF to lose that game. But there were three glaringly obvious things that stood out about how USF mounted their lead and lost it that were sort of obvious in retrospect.
Three reasons St. Mary's came back
1. USF was uncharacteristically hot in the first half: the Dons were last in the WCC in 3-point percentage entering the game against St. Mary's; they shot 8-for-12 in the first half against St. Mary's.
As a coach, you can look at that in two ways: you can react by changing the game plan to cool down their shooters or you can respond by realizing that they had to regress to the mean at some point. The Gaels did a mix of both.
After a timeout a few minutes into the half, St. Mary's brought a hard trap on unsuspecting USF point guard Zhane Dikes who threw an errant pass under pressure to turn it over. From there they mixed the schemes but went with the same general philosophy of blitzing ball handlers and packing the paint at the risk of giving up perimeter shots. The result was that even if the Haels weren't forcing turnovers, they had the Dons so rattled that they were either getting into their offense late in the shot clock or taking ill-advised shots.
The outcome was maybe even more disappointing than USF fans might expect: not only did the Dons not hit a three in the second half, but at some point they just stopped looking to for 3-point opportunities at all, seemingly accepting their own limitations.
2. Shannon Mauldin took over: Mauldin entered the game averaging 9.3 points, but went off for 14 of her game-high 23 points in the second half alone in the second half against the Dons. It was a combination of crafty moves around the rim, drawing contact to get to the line, and a few uncontested buckets that did the trick. But after those two turnovers early in the second half, Mauldin proved to be the only player on the floor - for either team - who could get what she wanted when she wanted and reap all the benefits.
3. St. Mary's exploited their strength inside: St. Mary's had just six points in the first half; they racked up 24 in the second. And the reason for that was simple, after getting those quick turnovers out of the way in the second half, they made a concerted effort to get the ball inside to Carli Rosenthal, who scored eight of her season-high 13 points in the second half. The 6-foot-3 Rosenthal simply bullied whoever USF stuck on her, whether it was the equally tall but considerably slimmer Paige Spietz or the shorter Taylor Proctor.
As a byproduct of the Gaels pounding the ball inside, USF started to get in foul trouble. And although nobody fouled out, it meant their posts really provided no - or, more accurately, even less, resistance to either Mauldin's drives or Rosenthal's post moves. From there it was just a matter of St. Mary's chipping away to put themselves in position to win.
Meanwhile, as USF's lead began to dwindle and foul trouble to their bigs made it difficult to stop St. Mary's inside, USF began to panic. They never found a way to counter the adjustments that St. Mary's made, which were really just a matter of the Gaels accentuating their strengths at the expense of the Dons.
The first half is lost, but not forgotten
USF certainly deserves credit for showing what they could do at their best in the first half. Put aside the absurdly hot 3-point shooting - something they likely won't be repeating - and you see what they're strengths are. Even after consecutive losses, they still rank second in the conference overall in points per possession allowed (0.86) and third in turnovers forced, according to WBB State. And it comes down to a matter of discipline: when they're talking, moving their feet and trusting their teammates they can probably contain anyone in the conference. When they can capitalize on opportunities to force turnovers and run - as they did in the first half - their athleticism can truly flourish and lead to the type of outburst they had to mount a shocking 20-1 lead in the first half.
Yet if there's an emergent narrative unfolding after two home losses to the conference's elite, it's that USF just isn't quite ready to compete with the elite on a consistent basis - even half to half.