TAMPA - The Bulls were on the verge of making school history, but a slow second half prevented them from going 9-0 for the first time Sunday afternoon.
Senior Andrell Smith exploded for 22 points and 13 rebounds, but USF’s offense couldn’t avoid lengthy cold stretches in a 62-52 loss to No. 24 Nebraska at the Sun Dome.
“I’m very proud of our girls because this is the first time during my time at South Florida that we’ve been 8-0. It keeps our confidence high and we’re still motivated to keep this thing going,” Smith said.
Inga Orekhova was the only other Bull in double figures with 11 points as USF shot a season-low 26.4 percent from the field against a Nebraska team that’s held opponents to less than 60 points five times this season.
“Shooting from the floor as poorly as we did, that was tough,” USF head coach Jose Fernandez said. “A lot of those were poor shots and tomorrow we’ll come back, look at tape, watch it tomorrow and bounce back. That’s what you do.”
Fernandez said it wasn’t difficult walking into the locker room following the Bulls’ first loss because he saw many encouraging things, especially on defense. All-America candidate Jordan Hooper scored 24 and star guard Lindsey Moore added 20 points, but the Huskers’ four other scorers combined for 18 points. The Bulls also forced 18 turnovers and stayed tough on the boards against a lineup with a lot of height.
“They have two really good players on their team,” Fernandez said. “I told our guys, ‘We have a very good basketball team and there are a lot of things we can take from this basketball game that’s going to make us better.’ ”
Andrell Smith started to heat up late in the first half during a 7-0 USF run to help the Bulls head into the break tied at 30. The guard followed up a steal and basket with a 3-pointer from NBA range shortly before the buzzer to get up to eight points.
“I was proud of the way we closed the half to go into the locker room tied,” Fernandez said.
USF had trouble getting into a rhythm for a good portion of the first period while shooting 33 percent from the field, but a strong performance with the team’s perimeter trio kept things close. Orekhova led the Bulls with 11 points (3-for-5 from 3-point range) while Andrea Smith added eight points before her twin sister’s late point surge.
Hooper and Moore combined for 21 points before the break as Nebraska connected 50 percent of the time from the field. USF’s relentless defense prevented the Huskers from taking off, however, thanks to 13 turnovers with Andrell Smith and Orekhova combining for six of USF’s 10 steals.
A three-point play by Andrell Smith gave the Bulls a quick lead after the break, but Nebraska broke up a 36-36 tie and took control with a 12-0 run. USF went nearly seven minutes without another basket until an Andrell Smith 3-pointer cut the Bulls’ deficit to nine with 8:26 to play.
“We didn’t stick to what coach was saying – box out, rebounding, talking on defense. I think we shied away from what we know how to do,” Smith said.
Smith added her fourth 3-pointer of the game about 30 seconds later to get USF within eight, but the Bulls never got any closer the rest of the way. Nebraska went on to hand an opponent its first loss for the second straight game.
USF returns to the court Friday, Dec. 21 in Cancun to face Nevada-Reno in the Caribbean Classic. The Bulls finish up at the Classic the next day with a test against Creighton before returning to the Sun Dome Saturday, Dec. 29 to take on Florida A&M at 2 p.m.