By TOM ZEBOLD
USF Senior Writer
TAMPA - Almost.
Andrea Smith tied a career high with 33 points, including USF's final nine points to force overtime, but the Bulls fell short of pulling off an upset to remember in a 75-71 loss to No. 2 Notre Dame on Tuesday night at the Sun Dome.
Notre Dame (13-1, 2-0) jumped up in the national rankings with a win over then-No. 1 UConn on Saturday before seeing USF have a shot at a win in the final seconds of regulation. Smith missed a layup with nine seconds left and the teams headed to overtime tied at 63 after Skylar Diggins missed a shot before the buzzer.
"I'm sure around the country there weren't a lot of people that thought we were even going to stay within 15 to 20 points after what Notre Dame did to Connecticut and what Notre Dame has done to opponents this season, but that's why you play the game," USF head coach Jose Fernandez said.
Smith continued her groove in overtime and ended up scoring 15 of USF's final 17 points in the team's Big East opener before a loud crowd of 2,077. Two Smith free throws gave the Bulls a 65-64 lead before Diggins hit a go-ahead layup with 3:47 remaining and the Irish prevented USF from earning its first win over a top-10 team in the program's history.
"They should be ranked in the top 25 because they're a very, very good basketball team," Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said.
Andrell Smith posted 15 points but fouled out with 4:27 to play which affected USF's rhythm on offense in crunch time. The Bulls went 1-for-7 from the field in overtime, but they certainly earned Notre Dame's respect despite faltering late.
"I really think if (Smith) hadn't fouled out of the game they would have won," McGraw said.
Andrea Smith added a team-high 11 rebounds as USF finished with a 50-48 edge on the glass. The Bulls also took care of the basketball for the most part, turning the ball over 16 times against an Irish defense that averaged 23.5 per game before Tuesday night.
"There are great things going on within our program and we couldn't be more proud of our (team)," Fernandez said. "This place is a great venue now to watch a basketball game and it was a great atmosphere."
The Smith twins combined for 23 points as USF put Notre Dame on upset alert by grabbing a 35-32 lead at halftime. Notre Dame turned the ball over 11 times in the opening period while Inga Orekhova posted two of the Bulls' three blocks and added to steals. Orekhova finished with 13 points and five rebounds.
"We came out a little flat and they jumped on us early," McGraw said.
Notre Dame wound up with a 61-54 lead with 5:38 to play in regulation before Andrea Smith took over. The senior guard made two free throws at the 5:04 mark, made a 3-pointer with 2:34 to play, added a jumper 33 seconds later and hit the game-tying jumper with 54 seconds on the clock.
"She wants the ball in her hands, that's the type of kid she is," Fernandez said.
Smith said a slight mishandle of the ball forced her to take an off-balance shot during USF's final possession of regulation but Fernandez couldn't complain after watching his team hang with one of the nation's elite programs.
"We battled back and we have the ball with 12, 13 seconds in front our bench with a chance to win it. What more can you ask against the No. 2 team in the country?" he said.
USF takes its increased confidence to Chicago to face DePaul 8 p.m. Saturday before returning to the Sun Dome to host Cincinnati on Tuesday, Jan. 15 at 7 p.m.
"If we play with this type of effort and energy, and rebound like we rebounded today, we'll be fine," Fernandez said.