Tampa, FL — The Central Florida Knights broke the South Florida Bulls’ hearts on Tuesday night at the Sun Dome. In the #WarOnI4 rivalry game, the Knights pulled away with a 66-62 Valentine’s Day win over the Bulls, as USF dropped to 20-5, 9-3 in the American Athletic Conference.
“It’s different for us,” USF head coach Jose Fernandez said. “We’re not used to that happening at home.”
UCF opened the game with a three-pointer in the first 30 seconds of play before the Bulls’ freshman forward Tamara Henshaw, responded with a layup to propel a 6-0 run for South Florida. Halfway through the first quarter, junior forward Marie Jespersen hit back-to-back three-pointers to give USF a 19-15 lead, followed by a huge block by Henshaw.
A layup in the last second of the quarter, by senior guard Ariadna Pujol gave the Bulls a 22-17 lead and increased the Bulls’ shooting efficiency to 50 percent from the field.
On the other side of things, UCF junior guard Aliyah Gregory grabbed her 1,000th career point as a Knight and led all scorers with 12 points.
“We talked to our kids about that we’re in the Top 25, we’re a NCAA Tournament team, the history of the series, and how important this game is to UCF,” Fernandez said.
Things started to go downhill for South Florida during the second quarter. Central Florida opened on a swift 6-2 run to cut the deficit to 24-23. Henshaw took a hard fall under the rim, and was assisted off the court with — according to Fernandez after the game — a sprained ankle.
The Knights held the Bulls scoreless for four minutes while grabbing 10 points of their own to take a 35-26 lead with two minutes left in the half. The Bulls’ sophomore forward Kitija Laksa ended South Florida’s scoring drought with a floater to cut the deficit 37-28 as the Bulls shot efficiency decreased to 38 percent.
Jespersen had a team-high 11 points, and four rebounds for USF, and Gregory led all scorers with 20 points. The Knights held a 37-28 lead at the half.
“We had some problems running our plays on the offensive end,” Jespersen said. “The ball didn’t move; we didn’t move enough. I think it's hard when you get scored on a lot. I think it takes some of your energy away. It's hard mentally. And I think it carried over a little bit on our offense.”
Henshaw was back in the lineup for the Bulls to start the third, but Central Florida quickly increased their lead to 41-28. South Florida was held scoreless for the first two and a half minutes of the third quarter until Laksa knocked down a jumper to end the drought.
Despite the Knights still controlling the game, the Bulls refused to back down. Junior guard Laia Flores hit her first of two three-pointers on the night, and the Bulls held the Knights to a two-minute scoring drought – cutting the lead to 47-38.
Heading into the final 10 minutes of play, South Florida trailed Central Florida 56-44. Gregory led all scorers with 30 points, just three points shy of her career-high.
“She’s a really good player, and she had a night,” Jespersen said on Gregory. “We [made] her [take] contested shots, it didn’t matter ... We tried pretty much everything ... She was really good, and you have to respect that.”
The Bulls didn’t let the Knights score for the first five minutes of the final quarter, and grabbed seven points of their own to cut the deficit to 56-51. From here on out it was a back and forth battle between the rival teams. UCF scored once again to take a seven-point lead, but Jespersen drained a three-pointer followed by a jumper to cut the deficit to 58-56.
The Knights responded with a jumper, but Henshaw responded with a layup. Central Florida drained two from the charity stripe, and Henshaw answered with a jumper to keep the battle going strong. A jumper and a free throw by Gregory pushed the Knights lead back up to five, but Henshaw grabbed an offensive rebound and connected with the basket to keep the Bulls alive.
With 1:35 to play, South Florida was down 65-62. Too much of the Sun Dome’s surprise, Laksa air balled what would have been a clutch, game-tying three-pointer, and gave the Knights possession with 45 seconds remaining. Another free throw by Gregory gave Central Florida a 66-62 edge over the Bulls to end the game.
Jespersen led USF with 18 points and 8 rebounds as the Bulls finished shooting 41 percent from the field. Gregory led all scorers with a career-high 34 points.
“She was very assertive,” Fernandez said on Gregory. “She made some really, really tough shots. We turned her down; we doubled her, we went zone. So it’s a credit, she had a really good night. They’re not in that position if it wasn’t for her individual performance today. She was good.”
Up next the Bulls will host Temple on Sunday for a 1 pm E.T tipoff.
“But hey, we gotta move forward,” Fernandez said. “And we have a really, really good Temple team coming in here at home.”