Fueled by an impressive 17-0 run to end the first half, the No. 18 USF women’s basketball team earned an eighth straight win and clinched the #2 seed in the upcoming American Athletic Conference Tournament with an 81-65 victory over the Houston Cougars on Wednesday night at the Sun Dome.
The Bulls (23-5, 12-2 AAC) struggled to hit wide open looks in the first few minutes, while the Cougars drained nearly every shot to grab a 10-5 lead at the first timeout, and a 21-16 lead at the end of one quarter.
“Credit to Houston... they are a tough team to play against,” head coach Jose Fernandez said. “We needed to play through their physicality and the fouls, and then we closed the half and that was huge.”
Senior forward Maria Jespersen came alive in the second quarter, exploding for ten points in the final 3:10 of the period. Jespersen finished with 19 points, eleven rebounds and an assist on her way to another #DenmarkDouble, her 16th double-double of the season.
Trailing 32-25, back-to-back threes from Jespersen and Kitija Laksa sparked the Bulls to a 42-33 halftime lead, and the 2,223 in attendance to their feet.
Laksa finished with a team-high 32 points, shooting 4-for-10 from three and grabbing three rebounds.
“The beginning of the game was a struggle. Maybe we weren’t focused enough,” Laksa said. “We knew they were going to be hard on us, it was all about refocusing and just going hard. If they go hard, we have to go hard.”
The Cougars (20-8, 9-5 AAC) never could recover from their meltdown and the Bulls cruised fairly easily the rest of the way. Houston head coach Ronald Hughey picked up a technical foul early in the third quarter to make things worse for his team.
Freshman point guard Alba Prieto provided a spark off the Bulls bench early in the game, and played a good chunk of the fourth quarter, where USF led by double digits the entire way.
Prieto finished with six points, and was 2-for-3 from behind the arc in ten minutes.
As a team, the Bulls finished 23-for-58 (40%) from the floor and 8-for-23 (35%) from three-point range. Both Laia Flores and Laksa played the full forty minutes.
The Bulls will play their final home game of the season on Saturday against Cincinnati at 5 p.m.