By Tom Zebold
USF Senior Writer
TAMPA – Inga Orekhova summed it up perfectly when talking about the Bulls in the Big East tournament.
“We have to stay together to win games,” she said.
The USF women’s basketball team’s ability to stay together made the difference in 60-59 victory over Pittsburgh in the first round at the XL Center in Hartford, Conn. The No. 9 seeded Bulls advanced to Saturday’s 2 p.m. meeting with No. 8 seed DePaul in the second round. Orekhova finished Friday’s dramatic win with a career-high 25 points including five 3-pointers.
Before any of that came to fruition the Bulls had to withstand a furious charge from the Panthers. The No. 16 seeded team erased a 21-point deficit in the second half, took a lead with about 2 minutes to go and took another one with 53 seconds remaining.
“I thought we stopped defending,” USF head coach Jose Fernandez said. “I thought we didn’t cover the dribble; we didn’t contain in the post. We didn’t do the things we did when we were up 19.”
USF (17-14, 8-8) shot just 21 percent in the second half, but its hands got hot just in time.
Jasmine Wynne’s layup tied the score at 57 with 1:20 remaining and a jumper by Brianna Kiesel gave Pitt the lead 27 seconds later. The game-winning bucket came in the form of a 3-pointer by Andrell Smith, who finished with 16.
“We definitely decided to make that game exciting in the second half,” Fernandez said. “It was a tale of two halves.”
Fernandez’s statement couldn’t have been more true after Orekhova single-handedly outscored Pitt, 21-20, in the first half.
USF started off with a 7-1 run with five points from Orekhova. The junior was just getting warmed up and scored 16 of the Bulls’ first 21 points less than 10 minutes into the contest. Orekhova went 4-for-5 from 3-point range during the stretch, marking the sixth time she’s had at least four as a Bull in her first season.
The USF defense also brought its A-game to Hartford, holding Pitt under the 16-point mark as a team for almost 17 minutes.
Orekhova nailed a buzzer-beating jumper to finish the half with 21 points and set up the Bulls up with a lot of breathing room.
“They basically left me open, so I took the shots,” she said.
The Bulls had a 39-20 lead at the half after forcing 12 turnovers and limiting the Panthers to 7-for-25 from the field. Things didn’t go right in the second half, but said the important was the Bulls fixed at the right time.
“We found a way to get a couple stops and make a couple of shots. We moved on,” he said.
USF defeated DePaul, 66-63, in overtime on Jan. 25 at the USF Recreation Center and Fernandez expects another thriller on Saturday.
“We had a great game against DePaul at home. It should be another great game tomorrow,” he said. “We’re going to have to defend the 3, block out and not give them second or third opportunities. DePaul is a very good shooting team and we’re going to have to defend the whole entire shot clock.”