But the South Florida women play tough before a record crowd in the 72-56 loss.
By PETE YOUNG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 29, 2002
TAMPA- The closer it got to tipoff, the larger the victory became for South Florida.
The success was measured at the turnstiles, where a record 3,702 streamed into the Sun Dome; in media attention, as TV and radio crews broadcast the game; and in the potential impact on recruiting and overall profile of the USF program. The past attendance record was 837 set Jan. 14, 1992.
After tipoff, victory belonged to mighty Connecticut, as it always does these days. The third-ranked defending national champions, playing without All-American Diana Taurasi, registered a workmanlike 72-56 win Saturday over the Bulls. It was the Huskies 49th straight win, second-most in NCAA history.
USF (4-6) acquitted itself well in defeat, but it was the mere presence in the Sun Dome of three-time national champion UConn (10-0) that mattered most.
"I haven't seen more excitement since I've been here," said USF coach Jose Fernandez, who is in his third season. "For our kids, it's the biggest crowd they've ever played in front of and the best team they've ever played against.
"I'm a firm believer in, even though we lost tonight, it helped us out an unbelievable magnitude. It helps out in all facets."
The fans were split about 65-35 in favor of UConn, whose outsized entourage of support rivaled a pro wrestling crowd in its penchant for homemade signs. The dozens of efforts ranged from "We Our Husky Women" to "We came down from Ellington, CT this weekend to see (the Huskies and the Bulls)."
"The first thing we said when we came out was 'Is this our home court?' " UConn freshman Barbara Turner said.
Without Taurasi (recurring right ankle problem), who leads the Huskies in scoring (19.4 ppg), rebounding (6.7 rpg) and assists (6.0 apg), UConn lacked its customary explosiveness, and USF, though it trailed from the outset, was within striking distance most of the game.
"It's too bad (Taurasi couldn't play). This is our first time down here and a lot of people wanted to see her," said coach Geno Auriemma, whose team plays Monday at Florida State. "When her swelling didn't go down at all today there was no point to it."
Five first-half 3-pointers helped the Bulls stay close, and they trailed 39-27 at halftime. UConn stretched the lead to 16 midway through the second half, then USF cut it to 53-41 on a basket by Jameelah Trimble (11 points, 8 rebounds, 3 blocks) with 8:53 remaining. But UConn countered with a 9-0 run to put it away.
"(USF) had a chance to cut it to four or five there if they had made a couple of shots," Auriemma said. "They were probably kicking themselves."
The Bulls entered with the lowest shooting percentage in Conference USA (35.6 percent), and wayward shooting did them in against UConn. USF made 21 of 60 field goals (35 percent), and UConn made 25-of-64 (39.1 percent) and 16-of-20 free throws.
Scrappy defense kept the Huskies from breaking it open, as the Bulls forced 22 turnovers. Tristen Webb led USF with three steals. Junior forward Sarah Lochmann led the Bulls with 12 points on 5 of 8 shooting. Aiya Shepard and Jen Kline added 9 and 8 points, respectively, off the bench for USF.
"It definitely gives us confidence," Lochmann said. "It makes us believe we can play with anybody."
Turner paced the Huskies with 16 points and nine rebounds, helping UConn to a 52-31 rebounding advantage. Freshman Ann Strother added 13 points and nine rebounds.