The looks were there.
The shots were taken.
But in the end, they wouldn’t fall.
In front of one of the largest crowds of the season in United Spirit Arena, the Texas Tech women’s basketball team lost Saturday to South Florida, 71-70, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“It was a great season,” said Tech forward Kelsi Baker, who lauded the effort put forth by the five Lady Raider seniors. “There’s nothing we can do about this game. We lost by one. Everybody came out and played hard.”
The season ended with Tech losing its final four games, skidding to a halt after a promising start.
The Lady Raiders (21-11) still exceeded expectations. Tech, which was a No. 7 seed, was picked to finish eighth in the Big 12 Conference by the league coaches, but it finished tied for third.
Still, the strong season was cut short by a determined South Florida squad, which will face second-seeded Cal at 8:30 p.m. Monday in the second round.
With the waning moments of the game cut short to television viewers because of technical difficulties, the 6,062 fans in United Spirt Arena were given a treat of one of the best games of the NCAA Tournament so far.
It was a back-and-forth affair all game, with neither team able to deliver the knockout blow until the final seconds.
Tech snatched the momentum with a Chynna Brown 3-point goal with 2:08 left, putting Tech up 64-61. After South Florida answered with clutch free throws — a sign of things to come — Christine Hyde did what she had done all day, contorting her body for an acrobatic layup and a 66-63 lead. Hyde led Tech with 20 points.
However, as it had done all game, South Florida had an answer. Inga Orekhova hit the last of her five 3s, tying it at 66 and renewing No. 10 South Florida’s effort to snatch its first NCAA Tournament win. Orekhova said she entered with the “have-to-win” mentality that she showed all game.
“When it came down to it,” Orekhova said, “coach Hernandez ran the play for me and I was coming off the screen and about to shoot the 3 like, ‘it had to go in.’”
Go in it did, and the Lady Raiders ran a play for their own hot-shooting guard.
Brown found herself with a look from 3-point range, but missed. After a Bulls timeout, Monique Smalls was a bit too overzealous on a steal attempt on the in-bounds play, and she sent Andrell Smith to the foul line. Smith made both free throws, moving USF ahead 68-66, and the Lady Raiders were now looking for another big shot.
Again Tech fed a senior guard, this time Casey Morris, but she missed. The Bulls’ Tiffany Conner hit one of two free throws, giving Tech one last chance with seven seconds left. The Bulls fouled Smalls to prevent a 3-point shot.
Smalls made the first and missed the second, narrowing the gap to 69-67, but the Bulls’ Alisia Jenkins bear-hugged the rebound and went to the ground. She made both free throws, sinking Tech and eliminating the five seniors on their home court despite a bank-in Morris 3 at the buzzer.
“It hasn’t really hit me yet,” senior Mary Bokenkamp said, “but I kind of just sat there and looked around to take it in one last time.”
Both teams had chances to create separation throughout the game, but Tech couldn’t hit its field goals, and the Bulls couldn’t stop fouling the Lady Raiders.
Tech shot 34.4 percent from the field (21 for 61) but made 21 of 29 free throws, including 5 of 6 during a pivotal stretch of the second half. Baker, who had 15 points, went to the bench with 15:15 remaining after picking up her fourth foul. Tech then stretched a minute-long field-goal drought into seven full minutes. Finally, Smalls hit a 3 to bring Tech within reach at 54-52.
Baker fouled out moments later, but the Lady Raiders answered.
Tech scored on five of its six possessions, culminating in Brown’s 3 that broke a 61-61 tie.
Brown finished with 17 points — bouncing back from a four-point performance in the Big 12 Tournament — but neither she nor Morris could extend the game.
Morris finished her Tech career with one of her worst performances of the season: four points on 1 for 12 shooting.
But Tech coach Kristy Curry wanted the ball in the senior guards’ hands.
“Casey and Chynna had been consistent all year,” Curry said. “Obviously, Casey had a really bad day, uncharacteristic, but you tell her to keep shooting it. We wouldn’t be dancing if she hadn’t brought us.
“Those kids brought us to the dance, and you go with them.”
The entire senior class had a mission of getting back to the postseason this year, and they did.
However, the sting of the loss was apparent.
“I’m very thankful for my teammates,” said Smalls, who broke down briefly during the post-game news conference. “And I’m very proud of the seniors and the underclassmen because they believed in us and so did the coaching staff. And everybody has stepped up.”