HARTFORD, Conn. - In order to beat No. 1 Connecticut, USF women's coach Jose Fernandez knew his team would have to slow down the pace of the game, make the open shot and limit turnovers - in his words, "play a perfect game."
While the Bulls certainly managed to slow the game down Wednesday - they were called for three shot-clock violations in the first half - they couldn't limit their other mistakes and lost 71-48 in front of 12,445 at the XL Center.
The Bulls (11-9, 1-6 Big East), who have now lost seven of their last eight games and shot less than 30 percent from the floor in three of the last four, were disjointed in the first half. Knowing UConn features one of the best interior games in the country, Fernandez had the Bulls looking for the open shot from behind the 3-point arc, a strategy that kept his team within five at 19-14 with 10:10 remaining.
The plan was also a result of the Bulls' inability to enter the paint with any degree of success. USF scored just two points inside in the first half and were routinely met by UConn's frontline duo of Tina Charles and Brittany Hunter, who combined for five blocks in the first seven minutes.
But because the 3-pointers stopped falling - USF made four of its first eight in that stretch - and because of the Bulls' ineptitude inside, the Huskies took over. They went on an 11-0 run in the next five minutes and fought off USF's halfcourt game by running on each possession, then buckled down on defense to hold USF to five points for a 42-22 halftime lead.
"Coach gave us the plays to run and they were working, but some shots went in and some shots missed," said guard Shantia Grace, who finished with a team-high 15 points. "In order for us to come back, we had to make those open shots."
While Fernandez noticed the team playing with more effort in the second half - a result of success taking the open shot and a return to stronger post play - the Bulls were unable to even make a dent in UConn's lead. The Huskies managed to extend their advantage to 27 points with 4:39 remaining and sealed the win by making their free throws down the stretch.
The game wasn't a total loss. USF managed to prove its place as one of the best rebounding teams in the conference by outrebounding the Huskies, 39-36. The success on the boards came even after UConn coach Geno Auriemma spent a significant time working on interior defense throughout the week.
"We told them, 'Look, South Florida's a good rebounding team. They don't make a lot of shots but they go hard to the boards.' So what happens? We get outrebounded," Auriemma said. "It was just kind of a disjointed kind of game, and I couldn't quite put my finger on why."
Jazmine Sepulveda scored eight points and had six assists for USF while Brittany Denson added five points, nine rebounds and four blocks. UConn was led by freshman Maya Moore, who scored 23 points, and guard Renee Montgomery, who had 21.
Fernandez was upbeat about the Bulls' performance.
"I'm not about moral victories, but I saw some things that I haven't seen in the last three weeks," Fernandez said. "Connecticut's beating people by an average of 40 points per game and they're averaging 90 points. For us to hold them to what they did today, I think that can be a positive."