LUBBOCK, Texas – USF’s historic season ended in the second round of the NCAA tournament on Monday night but the Bulls certainly didn’t go down without a fight.
The Bulls erased a 10-point deficit in the final minute of regulation but couldn’t keep their magical run going after an 82-78 overtime loss to No. 6 Cal before an announced crowd of 2,842 at United Spirit Arena.
“It’s tough to go in the locker room and to speak to your team,” said head coach Jose Fernandez. “It’s the last time you’re going to have eight seniors in the locker room in front of you. The character in that locker room is just tremendous to continue to fight and put yourself in a position to take it to overtime.”
Second-seeded Cal (30-3) took a five-point lead on a layup by Reshanda Gray with 2:33 left in overtime. Two free throws by Andrell Smith inched USF closer 28 seconds later but the Bulls couldn’t find the equalizer from long range before Afure Jemerigbe sank a pair of free throws to put Cal up by five with 52 seconds remaining.
An Orekhova free throw cut USF’s deficit to four with 37 seconds left and Andrea Smith got the Bulls within three with 28 seconds remaining. USF had the ball with 21 seconds remaining but Cal got its hands on a jump ball and Jemerigbe’s free throw put the game out of reach with 18 seconds on the clock.
“It was fun to go up and down,” Andrea Smith said. “I love those girls to death for fighting like that.”
Smith finished with a team-high 24 points, Orekhova scored 22 points and Andrell Smith added 12 points in USF’s first-ever trip to the NCAA tournament’s second round.
No-quit USF (22-11) did the unthinkable by erasing a 14-point deficit late in the second half in dramatic fashion. Orekhova capped off the miracle comeback by making three free throw attempts with 0.7 seconds remaining in regulation.
“I had to make them,” Orekhova said. “I had to take my team to overtime.”
Orekhova’s fourth 3-pointer got USF within four with 22 seconds remaining. Andrea Smith was fouled beyond the arc with 11.1 seconds remaining and made two-of-three free throw attempts but the Golden Bears continued to falter at the free throw line.
Cal’s Brittany Boyd was fouled with 10.1 seconds left and only made one attempt. USF had two tries at a tie and Orekhova was fouled attempting a 3-pointer with 0.7 seconds remaining. Orekhova made all three attempts even with a timeout called after the second one swished through.
The Bulls proved they were up to the task early against the Golden Bears, who needed a three-point play from Layshia Clarendon to extend their lead to 37-32 seconds before halftime. Clarendon led all scorers with 17 points at the break.
A Courtney Williams jumper gave USF its first lead with 6:01 to go before the break and the Bulls extended their advantage to 29-25 on an Andrea Smith 3-pointer before Cal made its late charge.
The Bulls hung tough early thanks to their ability to connect often from long range. USF hit five 3-pointers in the opening period and got three from Orekhova, who tied a season high with five against Texas Tech on Saturday night. Orekhova scored 20 points in USF’s historic win and was up to 11 points in Monday’s first half.
“It’s going to hurt but this is something that they’re going to remember for a lifetime,” Fernandez added. “For our underclassmen, it’s going to give us fuel in the spring and summer to get us back here.”
– Senior forward Tiffany Conner played in her 125th game as a Bull which tied her for second all-time in program history.
– Monday marked the second meeting between USF and Cal. The Golden Bears defeated the Bulls, 85-55, in the opening game of the 2008 Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands.
– Cal averaged 12 more rebounds than its opponents prior to Monday night. USF tied the Golden Bears at 47 on the boards.