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USF doesn’t ‘deserve’ NCAA bid if struggles continue

The No. 2 spot in the American Athletic Conference was up for grabs — behind the UConn Huskies of course — on Sunday afternoon the Sun Dome. The No. 22 University of South Florida Bulls hosted the No. 25 Temple Owls ... and dropped to 20-6, 9-4 in the AAC with a 77-71 loss.

NCAA Womens Basketball: South Florida at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Tampa, FL — USF freshman forward Tamara Henshaw grabbed the first points of the Top-25 showdown. Temple responded with a couple of layups of their own and a free throw, to grab a quick 5-2 lead.

The Owls held the Bulls to a two and a half minute scoring drought before sophomore forward Kitija Laksa stopped Temple’s 5-0 run on a jumper. The Bulls only hit two of their final 12 shots, went 0-for-6 from beyond the arc, and were held to a 25 percent shooting efficiency. The Owls shot at 41 percent from the field and held an 18-12 advantage after the first 10 minutes of play.

“I give it to Temple, they were tough today,” Henshaw said. “We just have to learn that we cant just sit down for people. No one’s going to sit back just because we beat them the first time. Its not about that. Its about being tough and fighting for the rest of the game.”

Temple opened the second quarter with a three-pointer, and Henshaw responded with an and-one layup. Owls’ junior guard Feyonda Fitzgerald knocked down a three-pointer and became second all-time for the Owls in scoring, passing two-time All-American and current WNBA star Candice Dupree. Meanwhile, USF head coach Jose Fernandez – furious at the refs officiating – picked up a technical foul

“The game was totally different in the first half than in the second half on the way that it was played, and the way it was called,” Fernandez said. “I wasn’t going to sit here for the next 22, 23 minutes watching that game unfold the way it did.

Temple held the Bulls to a three and a half minute scoring drought and extended their lead to 39-26 at the end of the half. USF remained scoreless from three-point range and their shot efficiency decreased to 24 percent. Junior forward Maria Jespersen had a team-high 8 points and 3 rebounds for the Bulls, and Temple guard Donnaizha Fountain led all scorers with 15 points and 4 rebounds.

“The ball was not going in so we didn’t do other things,” Fernandez said. “There’s one thing you can always do and that’s defend if the ball’s not going through the basket. And I don’t think we did that in that first half.”

Laksa opened the second half on a 6-0 run of her own to cut the Owls’ lead to 39-32. Three minutes into the third quarter, Temple had picked up four early fouls and Jespersen started a three-point shootout after she finally knocked one down for USF.

Temple responded for three on the other end of the court, and then junior guard Laia Flores splashed one in from beyond the arc to keep the Bulls within single digits. With less than two minutes to play, Jespersen drove to the basket to cut the Bulls’ deficit to 49-46.

A 10-3 run by the Owls gave Temple a 56-49 lead heading into the final 10 minutes of play. USF’s shooting increased to 33 percent, and Jespersen led the Bulls with 14 points and 6 rebounds. Fountain led all scorers with 17 points and 5 rebounds.

“We cant rely on the three,” Jespersen said. “We have to get to the basket. We have to get some fouls ... We just have to be more consistent on defense,” Jespersen said.

Four minutes into the final quarter Laksa hit a three-pointer to inch at the Temple’s 60-57 lead. The Owls hit a free throw, and Laksa knocked down another triple to get USF within one point.

On the next possession, the Bulls took a commanding 62-61 lead on a layup by Jespersen. USF had held Temple scoreless for over three minutes, before the Owls hit a three-pointer to regain a 64-62 lead. Bulls’ senior guard Ariadna Pujol responded with a layup of her own to tie the game at 64-64 with 3:34 to play. Jespersen drove to the basket again on an and-one layup, knocked down the free throw, and grabbed a 67-64 lead for the Bulls.

A three-pointer by Fitzgerald tied the game, and two free throws allowed Temple to take back the lead at 69-67. Fountain followed with another three and extended the Owls’ lead to 72-67. A 12-2 run over two minutes gave Temple a 76-69 lead with less than 30 seconds to play, and the Owls wrapped up the game with a 77-71 victory. Jespersen led all scorers with 26 points and 11 rebounds.

“I told our kids, we’ve had too good of a year for us not to close it out on the right side of things,” Fernandez said.

The Bulls will travel to Houston on Tuesday for an 8pm tipoff.

“We can’t afford to go to Houston or Tulsa and not play well,” Fernandez said. “Playing two games in three days, its tough but its huge … if we don’t go win at Houston or Tulsa we don’t deserve to go [to the NCAA Tournament.]”