A putback by Sierra Michaelis with 0.6 seconds left was the difference as the sixth-seeded Missouri Tigers broke the hearts of the eleventh-seeded USF Bulls 66-64 on Friday in the opening round of the NCAA Women’s Championship at the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center in Tallahassee.
The Bulls (24-9) were led by senior Ari Pujol, seen collapsing on the court above after leading all players with 20 points in her last collegiate game. Maria Jespersen added 17 rebounds, but struggled around the rim shooting just 2-10 from the field.
“We knew this was going to be a very good basketball game between two very good teams,” said Bulls head coach Jose Fernandez. “I thought the first half was very, very good for us. We got out, we shot a really good number.”
USF led 38-25 at halftime despite being down 9-0 early, and was dominating on both ends of the floor. Defensively they held the Tigers (22-10) to just 9-24 from the field in the opening half, while shooting 6-12 from three-point range themselves.
But the beginning of the third quarter portended the Bulls lack of depth, which saw them go scoreless for the first 5:17 of the third quarter. USF used just six players, with four of the five starters playing 39 or 40 minutes. It took until after the media for a Laia Flores three-pointer to change momentum, but a lead that was 13 at halftime was a mere three after 30 minutes of basketball.
“That third quarter really hurt us. I think the biggest difference when you look at it was those second-chance points. And the amount of offensive rebounds they got off the glass and converted,” said Fernandez.
“We knew they were going to come out excited and ready to play. They are a really good basketball team,” said junior point guard Laia Flores, who had 11 points and eight assists. “We didn’t take the best shots we could take (in the third quarter).”
The Tigers outrebounded the Bulls 36-33, but were held to just 8-24 from three-point range. Michaelis led Mizzou with 16 points, while Cierra Porter added 12 rebounds before receiving her fifth foul.
With USF down 64-61 with 8.5 seconds left Kitija Laksa dribbled over half court, stepped between two defenders, and knocked down what would have been one of the biggest three-pointers in program history to tie the game with 3.3 seconds remaining.
But in women’s college basketball as in the NBA, you can advance the ball to the frontcourt on a timeout, which is what Mizzou did. The Bulls brought in freshman Dorottya Nagy to help defend on the block to send the game to overtime, but she got caught ball-watching on Maria Jespersen’s defensive assignment of Amber Smith.
Jespersen closed out on Smith so effectively her shot never touched the rim, but it fell right into the hands of Michaelis, who laid it in while being nearly left alone under the basket with 0.6 seconds remaining. As USF was out of timeouts, despite the officials stoppage to review if the goal was good and to see if any time remained, there was no chance to score from 94 feet away.
The Bulls expect to return four of five starters next season.