TAMPA — A big week of women’s hoops got underway Tuesday night at the Yuengling Center when the South Florida Bulls hosted No. 4/4 Baylor.
In what was a tight game most of the way, the Bulls came up short, 67-62.
After falling behind by as many as 10 in the third quarter, the Bulls chipped away and twice tied the game in the fourth quarter on a pair of Bethy Menunga three-pointers, the latter making it 53-53 with 7:58 remaining.
“One possession at a time and we have to come out of this timeout and score,” said coach Jose Fernandez, in referring to his message to the team when he called timeout after falling behind 42-32 with 4:12 left in the third.
While the Bulls were able to tie it up, Baylor scored eight straight to take a 61-53 lead with 5:50 left. A pair of Sydni Harvey free throws brought USF to within 61-58 with 3:29 remaining, but the Bulls did not come any closer.
“Every time it was a one possession game or it was tied, they had an answer and that was the difference,” said Fernandez. “We needed to get some stops and we didn’t do that.”
USF (1-1) led for most of the first half, though neither team had more than a two-point lead. Baylor, which was 0-for-9 from three-point territory in the half, clung to a 29-28 after 20 minutes thanks to a 15-0 advantage in points off turnovers.
The Bulls had a 12-4 advantage in that category in the second half, but it was not enough to overcome the effort of Baylor’s Queen Egbo. The 6-foot-3 junior center scored 22 of her game-high 25 points over the final two quarters.
Sophomore guard Maria Alvarez had a team-high 18 points for the Bulls, a dozen of which came on four second-half three-pointers.
The Bears are the most recent national champion having won in 2019 at Amalie Arena in Tampa. They went 28-2 last season before the pandemic shut everything down.
Tuesday night’s game was the fourth meeting between the programs with Baylor winning all four. The most recent matchup prior to Tuesday night was last November 19 when the second-ranked Bears defeated No. 22/23 USF, 58-46, in Waco.
The Bulls take on another highly-ranked team on Saturday night (7 p.m., ESPN+) when No. 6/7 Mississippi State comes to town.
“It’s great to play these games early and we have to turn it around and play Mississippi State on Saturday,” said Fernandez, on the opportunity to play top-ranked teams during an abbreviated non-conference portion of the schedule.
The game against the Bulldogs will be the last of three non-conference tilts. The Bulls were scheduled to host Stetson next Saturday, but that was cancelled due to Covid-related issues with the Hatters.
USF opens American Athletic Conference play December 16 at Memphis.
Tom Layberger is a contributing writer for sportstalkflorida.com and forbes.com.