It took every moment and every point Saturday night, but in the end, South Florida got rid of a lot of NCAA tournament heartache.
The 10th-seeded Bulls shook off a raucous home crowd, made plays down the stretch and hit five of six free throws in the final 23 seconds to upend No.7 seed Texas Tech 71-70 in a first-round game of the Spokane Regional at United Spirit Arena.
The victory marked the first NCAA tourney win in program history. The Bulls dropped a two-point decision to Southern California in their only other appearance seven years ago.
“It means a lot to win this one,” USF coach Jose Fernandez said after his team improved to 22-10. “We’ve been on the wrong side of the ball three times when our name didn’t come up on Selection Sunday, so this means a lot — not just a lot to our program, but a lot to our entire university.”
USF’s reward is a second-round matchup against No. 2 seed Cal on Monday night at 9:30 (ESPN2).
“Our kids really executed down the stretch,” Fernandez said. “They did a great job of staying together.”
The Bulls did so with tenacious defense that limited the Lady Raiders (21-11) to one field goal in more than 10 minutes. During that time, South Florida pushed to a 52-45 lead with 7:57 remaining, but Tech refused to wither.
“They gave everything they had tonight,” Tech coach Kristy Curry said. “We just weren’t able to make a few plays down the stretch.”
Tech fought back to tie the game at 57 with four minutes left on a 3-pointer by Christine Hyde before taking the lead at 61-59 on two free throws by Jackie Patterson with 2:57 to play.
But each time Tech and its partisan crowd threatened to move away, USF gathered itself and struck back. Akila McDonald scored on a layup to tie it at 61, and when Tech took a 64-61 lead on another 3-pointer, it was Inga Orekhova who answered with two free throws at the 1:52 mark to trim the deficit to 64-63.
The Lady Raiders got an inside basket to pull ahead 66-63, but then Orekhova (20 points) answered with the team’s final — and biggest — field goal of the night. She drained a 3-pointer from the corner that made it 66-66 with just more than a minute to play.
“I came in with the attitude that we had to win, and I had the attitude that the shot was going in,” she said. “When I came down off the screen, I told myself, ‘It has to go in.’”
USF’s defense forced consecutive misses by the Lady Raiders, and the Bulls converted the rebounds into three of four from the line with Andrell Smith hitting two and Tiffany Conner making one of two for a 69-66 lead.
With Tech’s Monique Smalls maneuvering for a tying 3-pointer, she was fouled. After making the first one, she missed the second intentionally, but Alisia Jenkins collected the rebound and was quickly fouled. She calmly sank both free throws with 4.4 seconds remaining for a 71-67 lead.
Which turned out to be a good thing because Casey Morris drained a 3-pointer at the buzzer, cutting the gap to one point.
“We knew with a crowd like this, that it would be huge and an advantage for them,” said Smith, who finished with 13 points. We knew we had to stay together as a team — and we did.”
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.