By Joey Johnston
COLUMBIA, S.C. — The No. 8-seeded USF Bulls, facing their biggest challenge of the season, weren’t half-bad at the midpoint of Sunday afternoon’s NCAA Tournament second-round game against the No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks at the boisterous Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, South Carolina.
The Bulls, in fact, were playing toe-to-toe with the defending national champions, trailing by just four points and proving they belonged on the ABC-TV stage.
Then things crashed.
And they crashed in a hurry.
The Gamecocks eliminated the Bulls 76-45 with a merciless second-half display of rebounding, boa-constrictor defense and bench points.
“What I told our team is don’t let this define the year that we had,’’ USF Coach Jose Fernandez said. “It just got away from us in that third quarter.’’
South Carolina (34-0 with 40 straight victories and 76 wins in its last 78 games) won the overall rebounding duel 55-28 (24 offensive boards) by wearing down the Bulls with a flurry of second-chance points. It limited USF to 5-for-28 shooting (and 16 total points) in the second half. The Gamecocks also had 10 blocked shots and seven steals.
USF’s Carla Brito hit a pair of free throws with 8:19 remaining in the third quarter, cutting South Carolina’s lead to 33-31. But the Gamecocks outscored the Bulls 19-5 to close out the third quarter while transforming the atmosphere of a previously tension-filled game.
Fernandez’s Bulls (27-7), the American Athletic Conference regular-season champions, were again left without a Sweet 16 berth after making the NCAA Tournament’s second round for the fifth time in program history. But USF’s otherwise sterling year matched the program’s single-season record for victories.
The Bulls were led by senior guard Elena Tsineke, who had 20 points (while shooting 4-for-6 from 3-point range) and junior wing Sammie Puisis, who contributed 11 points. Senior center Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu, playing the final game of her brilliant USF career, was limited to just four points and eight rebounds (after registering 24 double-doubles).
The Bulls learned what every SEC team already had discovered — it takes a full 40 minutes of fury to stay with Coach Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks, the defending national champions.
The second-half performance, when the Bulls went nearly nine minutes without scoring, was a startling turnabout from a quick, confident start to the game. USF became only the seventh team all season to hold a first-quarter lead against the Gamecocks.
In the final minute of the second quarter, a jumper by Puisis and a 3-pointer by Tsineke cut South Carolina’s halftime advantage to 33-29 and it was nervous time for the local fans, who were accustomed to the Gamecocks’ 30.5-point average margin of victory.
As it turned out, South Carolina maintained that standard. The Gamecocks got 11 points and 11 rebounds from 6-5 center Aliyah Boston, the reigning National Player of the Year, but the real damage was done by guard Zia Cooke (21 points on 8-for-19 shooting).
The Bulls will return Puisis, Brito and point guard Aerial Wilson next season. Tsineke and Fankam Mendjiadeu, two of the most productive and popular USF players, will turn their attention to trying for professional basketball careers.
Fernandez said he’s confident that the returning corps — with some additions — will be well-positioned to make a run for the program’s 10th NCAA Tournament bid and a shot at that elusive Sweet 16 berth.
“I’ve had a really, really great time coaching this group,’’ Fernandez said. “I’ve had more fun with this group than I’ve had in the past, with everything we’ve been through. They’ve got a lot to be proud of.’’