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Defense leads way as Bulls hook Longhorns

Elisa Pinzan made five free throws in the final 90 seconds to seal the victory for USF against No. 15 Texas. ORACLE PHOTO/BRIAN HATTAB

USF women’s basketball coach Jose Fernandez may need to send a thank you gift to 401 Channelside Drive after the Bulls’ 64-57 win Friday over No. 15 Texas at the Yuengling Center.

Not for anything particularly special, either — mainly just for existing and temporarily causing confusion.

The Longhorns, who were staying 10 minutes or so off-campus in a hotel on Fletcher Avenue, boarded a charter bus that was initially driven under the assumption they were headed to Downtown Tampa’s Amalie Arena, home of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

While the mistake was caught well before the Longhorns reached the home of the Bolts — after all, Texas had practiced earlier Friday at the Yuengling Center and the day before at the adjacent Muma Basketball Center — it was not before the bus missed the Fowler Avenue exit on Interstate 75, forcing it to use I-4 as a way back to the USF area — on a Friday afternoon.

Texas eventually arrived around 6:30 p.m., and the game tipped off underway as scheduled at 7:06.

Once everyone was in the correct arena, it was a complete team victory by the Bulls (2-0).  A 38 percent night from the field coupled with a key defensive performance late lifted USF to its first win over a ranked team since knocking off No. 13 Ohio State on Feb. 11, 2018, at what was then still the Sun Dome.

After Texas went on a 6-0 run in the fourth quarter to take its first lead since early in the first, junior Bethy Mununga scored four of her career-high 12 points and recorded two of her three blocks, aiding the Bulls through the tough stretch. Mununga also collected two of USF’s nine rebounds in the final 10 minutes.

“Honestly, it was hard, because I had to fight,” Mununga said. “I didn’t use to play against big post players like Texas. So my coaches just told me, ‘Bethy, do your job. Be physical. Respond … back.’ It was hard, but it was not only me. The guards can rebound too, and that helped me a lot.”

The guards did help Mununga indeed in the fourth quarter, as sophomores Luize Septe and Elisa Pinzan recorded a combined five rebounds — two each defensively.

“I was proud of our group, when Texas went on that run — because we led all the way through … how our kids responded,” Fernandez said. “We answered it. And that’s what you need to do at home, protecting your home floor.”

It wasn’t just defense that held off the Longhorns. It was a timely 3-pointer by junior Enna Pehadzic — who led all USF scorers with 16 points — with 3:54 to go that gave the Bulls a lead they never surrendered again.

It couldn’t have come at a better time on a night when the Bulls were relatively icy from beyond the arc. USF finished 5-of-23 from 3-point range, including Pehadzic’s three 3-pointers.

“I think the most important thing [is] we stayed together,” Pehadzic said. “This game, we handled with a defensive mindset and said, ‘Offense is going to take care of itself. We just need to win this game with defense.’”

Pinzan sealed the deal by going 5-of-6 from the free-throw line within the final 90 seconds. While there was obvious pressure, Pinzan was prepared.

“It was a tough moment,” Pinzan said, “because you have all this pressure on you. … But we work a lot after every practice with 50 free throws a day. So I was just like, ‘You know you can score. Just be patient, reset your mind and just make the free throw.’ And that’s what I did. I let the pressure go away from my body.”

The win almost assuredly means the Bulls, who were already receiving votes, will find themselves in the top 25.

But that doesn’t matter to Fernandez, especially after what happened last season.

“We received a ton of votes last year — we were 14th-15th in the country — and we had injuries that we couldn’t control,” Fernandez said. “The polls and all that stuff, that’s for the fans. It’s great for us to get the national attention. And we’ve just got to stay humble.”