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Harlan 'not very' concerned over possible NCAA findings

USF athletic director Mark Harlan said he expects the NCAA's probe of his men's basketball program to wrap up soon.

ANDRES LEIVA | Times

USF athletic director Mark Harlan said he expects the NCAA's probe of his men's basketball program to wrap up soon.

Bulls athletic director Mark Harlan said he's "not very" concerned about the possible findings in the NCAA's probe of his men's basketball program, which he expects to wrap up shortly.

In an exclusive interview in his office Thursday afternoon, Harlan said he feels good about how the university has cooperated with the investigation, reportedly for academic impropriety. The probe, which surfaced last summer, resulted in the immediate resignation of assistant Oliver Antigua.

Antigua's brother, USF coach Orlando Antigua, was dismissed Jan. 3 after the Bulls lost their first two American Athletic Conference games.

"We're getting close to conclusion on that matter, and I expect us to be able to share those outcomes in a relatively short period of time," Harlan said. "Hard to say exactly when, but we're on the backside of the process.

"I appreciate the (NCAA) staff and certainly feel like we've done everything we've been asked to do."

The investigation was among a variety of topics addressed Thursday by Harlan. He also spoke extensively for the first time about his January tweet re-affirming his commitment to USF amid speculation he was being considered for the same job at Arizona (his alma mater).

"I went to Arizona and I worked there off and on for almost 17 years, so I think I can get why there would be a connection," Harlan said.

"But we are so happy here. I say 'we' the family, we just love living here. And then when you look at the university and the work part of it, I'm just so excited about what we've done and how much more we will do, that I'm not going anywhere."

Also discussed by Harlan:

* The performance of Murry Bartow, 1-12 as interim men's basketball coach: "I think he's done a terrific job. I told him the morning that I offered him this opportunity to lead us the rest of the way that I would judge him primarily on how the day-to-day activity of the program went.

"In other words, how are our young people in that program performing off the court? Obviously in the classroom, but are their heads back up? Are they engaging with the overall department? Are they engaging with the student body? And we've seen all of that, and we really monitor those things."

* On whether Bartow will be a candidate for the permanent job: "I guess I would put that under the auspices of, I just don't talk about any candidates while we're in a search."

* The progress of USF's feasibility study of an on-campus football stadium: "We are right in the middle of that process, looking at the viability of an on-campus stadium. We hope to have some returns on that in some short period of time. ... As we get more data, and decisions made off that data, then the idea would be that we'd be very clear with our constituents where we stand on that matter."

* His initial impressions of new football coach Charlie Strong: "A pro's pro. ... He's just very focused. He's very excited to be here, which is great. And even most importantly, when I run into our football players, I ask the question, 'How's it going? How's the transition?' And all of them are just like, 'It's good, it's really good.'"

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Q&A: USF defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary

New USF defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary says the Bulls' depth at linebacker is a concern entering spring camp.

Photo provided by USF

New USF defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary says the Bulls' depth at linebacker is a concern entering spring camp.

The improbable odyssey of new Bulls defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary has spanned a smorgasbord of destinations: New York City and North Carolina. Apopka and Atlanta. Texas and Tampa. At only 41, this New York City native (and son of Haitian-born parents) probably has several more stops looming in this vagabond profession. But the task before him these days is restoring the mojo -- and gap control -- of a USF defense that lacked much of both in 2016. During a sit-down Wednesday with the Tampa Bay Times, Jean-Mary -- a teammate of Warren Sapp at Apopka High -- discussed his Hall of Fame budddy, influences, and what he sees in the unit he inherited.

What's your best Sapp story? (Jean-Mary was two years behind Sapp at Apopka.)
"How much time we got? ... Nah, for all of his quirks and for some of the issues that he has, he was always a really, really good guy for us. ... He was about as big a jokester as you could have. That didn't start when he got (to Tampa). He missed most of his junior year. He broke his thumb, and you would think, 'Okay, what football story (occurred) for him to break his thumb?' He stuck his hand out of the bus while he was going home, trying to mess with one of the kids that was out there, and hit a tree and broke his thumb. That's Sapp for you."

Ruffin McNeill (former East Carolina coach) was your defensive coordinator at Appalachian State. Was he a big influence for you?
"Yes, yes he was. Big-time. I was blessed to be around some really great coaches. It's probably why I'm sitting here right now. ... My linebackers coach (at Appalachian State) is the defensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings right now, George Edwards. That was two big-time influences for me. And obviously the head coach is a legend, Jerry Moore, with all the things that he did when he was there. Appalachian is Appalachian because of the turn that he made with that program."

From what you've watched on tape (Jean-Mary said he has watched every game from last season), what's your assessment of what you've inherited?
"I think they have some really good players here. I think you've got some very prideful kids, some kids that for the most part think that they can get better. And they want to be pushed, which as a coach you couldn't ask for a better type of player. ... So I'm excited about it; very, very excited about it."

USF fans are concerned in the fact you'll probably employ more linebackers, but you've suffered some attrition at that position. How much of a concern is that?
"We have to pick up the depth, and that's something we tried to fix in recruiting. We didn't get a lot of the kids that we were trying to. We feel like we landed a good one in Keirston (Johson) up in Jacksonville...but we have to fix our depth issue. Right now, we have (Auggie) Sanchez coming off a labrum tear, so he's gonna miss the spring. So I told those guys that's an opportunity for some guys to step to the forefront, because now you're gonna get an opportunity to show what you can do. And that's usually where your depth comes from, whether it's through injuries or...some guys leaving through attrition. Guys are gonna start to kind of have their opportunity. We're low in numbers but we have some bodies there, and I'm hoping some guys kind of separate themselves during spring practice."

Do you feel you have the numbers or the type of kids to run what you want to run at this point?
"Yeah, and I've gotten that question from a couple of people. It's one of those things where I think if you're gonna be a good coach, you have to be able to adapt to the kids that you have. We're not gonna try to force things. If it's not a great fit, we're multiple enough that we're gonna make it work with the kids that we have."

Charlie Strong appears to be a pioneer of the 3-3-5, and linebackers are very active in that scheme. They wreak a lot of havoc across the line of scrimmage. Is that what you'd like to do here?
"We want to be ultra-aggressive and have obviously lost-yardage plays and sacks. If you're gonna be aggressive those are things that have to happen, and obviously linebackers and the defensive line are gonna play a big part in that. But it's just like I said, if we have more defensive linemen than we have linebackers that are gonna be productive, we have to find a way to get them on the field also. You want to try to get your best unit that you can. If that involves more defensive linemen or even more DBs, we can always work around that, whatever the strengths of the team are going to be."

It appears as if you have some hybrid-type guys on this team.
"We do, and that's what makes the 3-3-5, the 3-4 -- whatever you want to call it -- that's what makes it work: hybrid guys that can obviously rush the passer, can play at the line of scrimmage, but also can play linebacker or do some things that you would ask linebackers to do. That's what's gonna make it work, because now you can be so much more multiple."

Former coach Willie Taggart made no secret that he felt poor tackling, and a lack of gap control, were major issues last season. From what you've seen, are these things correctable?
"Of course. Tackling, which a lot of people still think it comes down to athletic ability or having the best player. It's still fundamental, and it's a technique issue. Tackling is something that has to be practiced and it's just like riding a bike, you have to continually do it on a day-to-day basis to be good at it. The minute that you take it for granted, it shows up on video, so that's something we're gonna really, really focus on.

"And then the gap-control issues, it comes from trust with your teammates, and it comes from also just knowledge of what you're doing on defense. Those are obviously things that can always be corrected. I say trust and knowledge, it also comes down to effort, where if I have a gap and they're blocking me out of it, I've got to try like heck to get in that gap to protect us on defense also."

Going into spring, is there one area on defense you feel particularly good about?
"They still have to adapt to what we're gonna do and what we're gonna ask them, because some responsibilities are gonna change. But I think our defensive line -- from what I've seen, just them running around and from what I've watched on video -- I think that can be a strength for us. ... I think you've got great kids and, like I said, prideful kids that look like they're willing to go the extra mile to get the job done and get the team to where they feel like it belongs."

You and Charlie have been together a long time. From a recruiting aspect, you don't really push kids to commit early. You seem to urge them to go make their visits and make an educated choice. Is that accurate?
"Yes."

What's behind that? Because there's so much pressure in today's recruiting climate to get kids to commit early.
"I think Coach (Strong) always feels like when kids commit early, they're just making a reservation. Our philosophy is always that it's easier to get a kid committed early, but it's hard to keep him committed once he commits. You hate to say it, it's the look-at-me age that we're in with all the social media and stuff. Sometimes when a kid commits, he becomes an afterthought, and if they have friends that are not committed and they're always on the front page...and everybody's always talking about them, it kind of eats away at them. So they want to be the story also, and that's just the way recruiting works. ... So we always say, 'Go out there and do that.' But we know on that first Wednesday in February, you can only pick one. So at least you can make an informed decision and you can get all that out of your system, and at the end you're still gonna pick the school that's best for you."

Aside from Coach Strong, who would you say is your biggest influence?
"I think you just talked about 'em. If I had to break it down into points of my life, obviously (former Apopka) Coach (Chip) Gierke was a big influence because he's the one that taught me football, and kind of was the first male coach that kind of showed that he cared and had my best interest at heart. Like most kids, I was raised with a single mom and didn't know anything about football. I moved from New York City in high school; nobody plays football up there, everything's basketball. So I got introduced to the game through him and I was fortunate enough that I didn't live too far from him, so there were a lot of times he picked me up and took me to and from practice. So he was a huge influence."

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USF baseball: Breaking down Bulls' upset of FSU

We understand the pitfalls of overplaying one contest in a 54-game regular season. A couple of key injuries, or one case of off-field malfeasance, can turn a sparkling year sour in an instant.

Still, it's hard to understate the significance of the USF baseball team's 4-2 upset of No. 4 FSU on Tuesday in Tallahassee.

The triumph was USF's first against the 'Noles since the Aqua Net era (1989), snapping a 15-game win streak in the series. Mentally, it can fortify a young club still developing confidence and mojo. Won't look too shabby on an NCAA Tournament resume either.

"I think it builds on what we're trying to do," Bulls third-year coach Mark Kingston said. "I would compare it to a couple of years ago when we got the big win against Cal-State Fullerton (in the 2015 opener). It was something we were able to draw confidence from the rest of the way."

Here's a closer look at the biggest win -- so far -- of the Kingston era.

* It was the Bulls' first against a top-five team in nearly five years. USF defeated second-ranked Florida, 5-2, on April 24, 2012.

* Six pitchers -- three of them freshmen -- combined for a one-hitter. Right-handed starter Ryan Valdes, a former Alonso High star who missed nearly all of last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, made his first start since 2015 (1 ER, 1 H, 3 BB).

* The freshman triumvirate of Noah Yager, Bishop McLaughlin alumnus Carson Ragsdale and Collin Sullivan teamed for four perfect innings, tossing two strikeouts apiece.

"(Pitching coach) Billy Mohl did a great job calling pitches all night long, (Tyler) Dietrich did a great job behind the plate," Kingston said. "The pitchers were obviously the big show tonight."

* 'Noles starter Andrew Karp retired the last 12 Bulls he faced before exiting after the seventh. In the ninth, USF scored all four of its runs in the ninth off three walks, two hit batters, a passed ball, an RBI-single (by sophomore David Villar) and a sacrifice fly (by Dietrich).

"The big thing (about the ninth) is, we just finally started laying off some tough pitches down in the zone," Kingston said. "I thought that was the difference in us scoring some runs."   

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USF's Lauren Evans named AAC Player of the Week

USF junior Lauren Evans has been named American Athletic Conference Player of the Week.

Photo provided by USF

USF junior Lauren Evans has been named American Athletic Conference Player of the Week.

Bulls junior INF Lauren Evans, who hit .500 in five games this past weekend, has been named American Athletic Conference Player of the Week.

A former Academy at the Lakes star, Evans finished 8-of-16 with four runs scored, a stolen base, sacrifice bunt and no strikeouts during the five-game stretch.

She recorded multi-hit games against Wisconsin, (eight-inning, 3-1 loss), Hofstra (7-5 win) and Oklahoma State (six-inning, 12-4 win). For the season, Evans is hitting .385 with six runs scored.

The Bulls, 2-7 this time a season ago, are 6-3 with one triumph against a ranked foe (No. 6 Michigan).

In other softball news, USF pitching coach Jessica Moore, has been named 2016 USA Softball Female Athlete of the Year.

Moore earned the win for the U.S. national team in the title game of the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) Women's World Championship last summer. In 15 total innings, she struck out 23 and allowed three earned runs.

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ESPN bracketologist says USF not on bubble...yet

USF point guard Laia Flores (sore right ankle) is among a handful of Bulls playing through injury.

ANDRES LEIVA | Times

USF point guard Laia Flores (sore right ankle) is among a handful of Bulls playing through injury.

Despite USF's unsightly two-game skid, the nation's foremost NCAA women's bracketologist doesn't think the Bulls are sitting precariously on the bubble.

As of right now.

"USF has faded, but I don't think there is danger of missing the tournament, yet," ESPN's Charlie Creme wrote Monday morning in an e-mail to the Tampa Bay Times.

Besieged by injuries, the Bulls (20-6, 9-4 American) fell 66-62 to UCF at home on Tuesday, and watched a valiant second-half rally fall short in Sunday's 77-71 home loss to Temple. …

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USF women's rally falls short in costly defeat

With 20 victories and a top-50 RPI, the USF women's tournament resume still looks pretty solid these days.

Their seeding is another story.

A furious second-half rally by the No. 22 Bulls (20-6, 9-4 American) ended with futility down the stretch in a 77-71 loss Sunday to Temple before a Sun Dome crowd of 2,281. USF has lost two in a row for the first time this season and almost certainly will fall out of the top 25.

Suddenly, it appears in danger of losing three of its last five entering the American Athletic Conference tournament. The Bulls play at Houston (10-16, 3-10) on Tuesday and at Tulsa (8-18, 4-9) on Saturday before hosting top-ranked Connecticut on Feb. 27.

"We've got to go on the road and win those two games," Coach Jose Fernandez said. "And if we don't, we don't deserve to go to the NCAA Tournament."

Hampered by one of its most dreadful shooting halves of the season, USF trailed 39-26 at halftime Sunday, missing all 10 of its 3-point attempts. At that point, USF had more turnovers (nine) than field goals (eight).

And Temple had done far more hand-checking than Fernandez could bear, prompting his technical with 2:53 to play in the first half.

"I wasn't gonna sit here for the next 22, 23 minutes watching that game unfold the way it did," Fernandez said.

The Bulls scored the first six points of the second half -- all by sophomore Kitija Laksa -- and trimmed their deficit to seven, 56-49, by the end of the third. When junior Maria Jespersen (26 points, 11 rebounds) converted a traditional three-point play with 2:46 to go, USF went ahead 67-64, its first lead since the first period.

"I think the first and second halves definitely were officiated differently," Fernandez said.

From there, USF went on a 2:17 scoring drought lowlighted by two turnovers and a critical defensive lapse.

The Bulls failed to box out after a missed 3-pointer by Temple's Alliya Butts on the left wing, enabling Feyonda Fitzgerald (23 points) to hit a second-chance 3-pointer to tie the score at 67-all.

A Donnaizha Fountain trey from the right baseline made it 72-67 with 56 seconds remaining. Temple (21-5, 11-2) went 7-of-8 from the free-throw line in the last 1:33.

"Up three and we don't get a defensive stop when we needed to," Fernandez said. "It was a long three (by Butts) from the left wing and we didn't block out. And that's what it comes down to."

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Speedster Chauncy Smart signs with USF

The Bulls received a significant -- and speedy -- late addition to their 2017 recruiting class when Auburndale High ATH Chauncy Smart signed a letter of intent.

One of the nation's top sprinters, Smart (5-foot-8, 160 pounds) announced via social media on Saturday he'll play football and run track for the Bulls. In a follow-up message to several media outlets including the Tampa Bay Times, he indicated he had signed.

If and when the announcement is confirmed by the school, Smart will become the 19th signee in the Class of 2017.

Smart, who has an all-conditions personal-best time of 10.3 seconds in the 100-meter dash, is on a visit to USF this weekend.

A three-star prospect according to 247Sports, Smart signed a track scholarship with FSU last fall but was granted a release. Originally a two-sport athlete, he quit Auburndale's football team about midway through the '16 season, presumably to stay healthy for track.

But his passion for football led to a change of heart. He is deemed a three-star football prospect by 247Sports.

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Nine-run inning rallies Bulls past Iowa

On the eve of what could be a nasty storm front in Tampa, USF brandished the art of storming back.

Handcuffed most of the night by Iowa right-handed starter Nick Gallagher, the Bulls exploded for nine eighth-inning runs off two Hawkeyes relievers in a 9-4 romp before a USF Baseball Stadium opening-night crowd of 1,113.

Spoto High alumnus Chris Chatfield's one-out RBI-single started the rally. Senior DH Luke Borders followed with a two-run triple that he nearly stretched into an inside-the-park homer.

Sophomore Cameron Montgomery provided the go-ahead RBIs with a two-run double. By inning's end David Villar and Kevin Merrell each had stroked two-run singles. …

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Q&A: USF offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert

New USF offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert, a west Texas native, is on his fifth collegiate coaching stop.

JOEY KNIGHT | Times

New USF offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert, a west Texas native, is on his fifth collegiate coaching stop.

Though he's set to close on a new home in the area later this month, new Bulls offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert still is living primarily out of boxes. Among the items still stowed: the contents of his Art Briles-influenced offense. Gilbert, 38, didn't offer many specifics (for obvious reasons) during his sit-down Wednesday with the Tampa Bay Times, but he did chat about his influences, fellow staffers and his west Texas roots.

What's your assessment of the personnel you've inherited here?
"You know, what's probably a little unfair about that right now is, you don't really know until you get out to spring ball. Obviously a guy like Quinton (Flowers) jumps out to you, and D'Ernest (Johnson) and some of these guys that are back. But as far as just sitting right here today, you just watch 'em go through some offseason stuff and lift, so you're not seeing any football stuff until March 6. So our true assessment, our true evaluation of those guys, won't come until then."

What would you say is one -- or two -- prevailing adjectives to describe your offense?
"You know, we try to be physical. Physical and fast are probably the first two words that come to mind. That's what we want to be, be physical in our run game, have a physical presence about what what we do and how we play. And then just the speed and tempo that we play with, and the kind of speed that's on the field."

You were a pupil of Art Briles back in the day (a Houston graduate-assistant in 2005), and the presumption is you run a Baylor offense. But I'm sure over time, you've added some components and variations of your own, correct?
"Absolutely. I was with Art back in '05; that was at Houston. So what it's evolved to and how it is today has changed. And just a lot of that's been with my location and where I've coached. When you're up north, you've got to do things a little bit different weather-wise than you do down in the south. So those are some things that we've adapted and adjusted with."

Something that fascinates people about the Baylor-style offense are the post-snap adjustments. Is that something you'd like to try here?
"Yeah, I think so. There's just some different stuff that we do in the ways that we try to get things accomplished and done scheme-wise, and we've had some success doing that. And again, you go back to your initial question, the thing we've got to do that you can't do right now in the weightroom or in the offseason drills is, we've got to see what our guys do best. That'll be the first initial thing."

You've been at a lot of places. Who would you count, on one hand, as your biggest influences?
"I really don't just identify with one of those guys. I mean really, with Art and then Dino Babers, those are probably two of the biggest guys that stick out. I was with Dino at Eastern (Illinois) and obviously at (Bowling Green) and learned a lot of football from him. He has a really heavy influence on me and the path that I've taken and what we do on the offensive side of the football."

What will the collaboration be like between yourself (offensive coordinator) and Matt Mattox (offensive line/run game) on game days?
"It just works. We really don't even divide it up. I'd say it's somewhat like that, but we've coached together for a while now and we just understand and know what we want on Saturdays and what we need. We both obviously rely and depend on each other for information and answers and suggestions within our whole staff. That is one positive, Coach (Charlie Strong) was able to bring pretty much everybody with us (from Texas). And Shaun (King) is with us, who's got a great football mind and played in the NFL, we all know that. He brings a perspective and a view himself, and gives us obviously some knowledge."

You mentioned you've watched a little bit of USF film from last year. They ran what they liked to call the Gulf Coast Offense. How similar is that offense to what you'd ideally like to do?
"I haven't seen enough. When I say a little bit of film, I bet I haven't seen 50 plays (from USF's 2016 season). I don't really probably have a fair judgment off that minimal amount of plays. But just in those 50, there are some things that I like that will probably be good carry-over for what we're doing."

As a west Texas guy, how close were you to Odessa and Midland of Friday Night Lights fame? (Gilbert attended Lake View High in San Angelo, Texas)
"They're about and hour and 15, hour and a half west of me. So the whole Friday Night Lights the movie, that district is Odessa High, Odessa Permian, San Angelo Central...and then you've got the two Abilene schools, Abilene High and Abilene Cooper. So that's what that movie's based on, those schools. ... I grew up hearing all that Mojo and all that kind of stuff."

So when you were a high school coach in west Texas, how many fans on a typical Friday night?
"Umm, it just probably depends where you're at. You go to Abilene Cooper...you're probably looking at -- I'm gonna say -- 10,000 to 18,000. And then your crosstown rival game with Abilene High is gonna probably draw you in the 20-something. ... And then those other places, we had good crowds. My first job was at Springtown (Texas), and you might only draw -- I don't know -- 3,000 to 5,000 people, but it's not a very big town. I mean, it's one of those deals that when you go on the road, last person out turn off the lights. Nothing's going on in town when the games are going on."

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USF's Darius Tice granted extra year

USF running back Darius Tice, who fractured his ankle early in his senior season last fall, has been granted an extra year of eligibility.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

USF running back Darius Tice, who fractured his ankle early in his senior season last fall, has been granted an extra year of eligibility.

Bulls senior RB Darius Tice, whose college career appeared to end when he fractured his right ankle in September against FSU, was granted a medical redshirt by the NCAA and will be eligible in 2017, the school confirmed.

One of the team's more popular players, Tice's return helps fortify a running back depth chart that took a substantial hit when three-time 1,000-yard rusher Marlon Mack announced in January he'd bypass his senior year and enter the NFL Draft.

Tice (193 career carries, 874 yards, five TDs) will join rising senior D'Ernest Johnson (1,000 career rushing, 756 career receiving yards), sophomore-to-be Trevon Sands (eight carries, 26 yards in '16) and 2016 redshirt Elijah Mack in the backfield derby. 

Speaking of Mack, he and former Bulls WR Rodney Adams will represent USF at the NFL Scouting Combine, starting Feb. 28 in Indianapolis. …

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Gregory, UCF shock No. 22 Bulls

Ten months after former USF scoring dynamo Courtney Williams was taken with the No. 8 overall pick in the WNBA Draft, Bulls fans got a pseudo-sighting of her Tuesday night.

Courtesy of UCF junior Aliyah Gregory.

In a performance reminiscent of Williams, the Strawberry Crest High alumnus scored a career-high 34 points in the Knights' 66-62 upset before an announced Sun Dome crowd of 1,884.

It was UCF's first win ever against a ranked team and first against USF since Dec. 10, 1980, snapping the Bulls' 19-game winning streak in the series.

Gregory, who said she was recruited by USF (20-5, 9-3 American) but never offered a scholarship, hit a free throw with 13.3 seconds to play to provide the final margin. Before that, she scorched the No. 22 Bulls with steady dribble penetration and a sequence of mid-range jumpers.

"I have to prove myself to a lot of teams because a lot of people didn't recruit me because they didn't think I could score at an elite level in college and things like that," said Gregory, who estimates she had more than two-dozen friends and relatives in attendance.

"So every night I come out here and prove myself no matter who we're playing, but it's a little more personal with USF 'cause it's my hometown."

The Knights' top scorer (16.0 ppg) coming in, Gregory scored 14 consecutive points in one stretch between the first and second quarters, and had 20 at halftime, when UCF led 37-38. Doing a bulk of her damage from mid-range and in, she finished 15-of-26 from the floor, missing her only 3-point attempt.

"We turned her down, we helped with the post, we doubled her, we went zone," Bulls coach Jose Fernandez said. "It's a credit, she had a really, really good night. They're not in that position if it wasn't for her individual performance today."

Trailing 56-44 entering the final period, USF opened the quarter on a 12-2 run, holding the Knights scoreless the first 4:55. UCF (16-9, 6-6) regrouped and took a 65-60 lead on Gregory's traditional three-point play with 1:58 remaining. From there, USF went 1-of-4 from the floor, turning the ball over on its final possession.

Moments later, the Knights were celebrating at midcourt as USF's players gathered beneath one basket for the traditional playing of the alma mater.

"We talked to our kids about we're in the top 25, we're an NCAA Tournament team, the history of the series, and how important this game is to UCF," Fernandez said. "It showed; you saw how they celebrated after the game. Hand it to them."

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USF spring game set for April 15

USF fans won't get their initial glimpse of Charlie Strong's inaugural Bulls team until April 15, when it stages its annual spring game.

ANDRES LEIVA | Times

USF fans won't get their initial glimpse of Charlie Strong's inaugural Bulls team until April 15, when it stages its annual spring game.

Bulls fans won't get their initial glimpse of Charlie Strong's inaugural Bulls team until April 15, when the Bulls stage their annual spring game.

The school confirmed Tuesday morning what was widely expected: Strong's spring practices will be closed until the spring game, which again will be held on campus at Corbett Stadium. Admission to the 4 p.m. contest is free, and the game will be broadcast live on the radio on 820-AM.

USF begins spring drills March 6. After three practices, the Bulls will adjourn for spring break (March 12-18) before returning for the final 12 of 15 spring workouts starting March 21.

Spring game festivities again will feature a Fan Zone including inflatables, music and food. In a Bulls doubleheader of sorts, the baseball team will host Cincinnati at 1 p.m. on Red McEwen Field.

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USF's Kingston up in arms, and it's a good thing

USF senior Phoenix Sanders is expected to start Friday's season opener at home against Iowa.

Photo provided by USF

USF senior Phoenix Sanders is expected to start Friday's season opener at home against Iowa.

Third-year USF baseball coach Mark Kingston believes the pundits who have offered modest projections for the Bulls in 2017 simply haven't seen a large chunk of his pitching staff.

Unless they smuggled a hidden camera inside the Bulls' rehab room last year.

Arguably no USF coach this side of Murry Bartow warrants a mulligan more than Kingston, who lost four pitchers to Tommy John surgery in 2016. The result was a 24-33 record, only one season after USF earned its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2002.

"No disrespect to last year's team, but we had to deal with a lot of adversity," Kingston said.

Entering Friday's season opener at home against Iowa, adversity has been supplanted by anticipation. The Bulls' pitchers are healthy again.

Toss in a seasoned nucleus of sophomore position players, and a promising freshman class rife with bay area flavor, and Kingston's outlook is much brighter than his fellow American Athletic Conference coaches (who picked USF sixth in the AAC preseason poll) or d1baseball.com (which picks USF seventh).

"When you factor in our (injured pitchers) are now returning, you factor in some new players that were in this year's recruiting class, and then you talk about the continued growth that (pitching coach) Billy Mohl has done with our guys...I feel a lot better about our options going into this season," Kingston said.

"Knock on wood, so far this year guys appear to be at full strength and we've seen a lot of improvement on the pitching staff."

Almost certain to get the ball Friday is senior right-hander Phoenix Sanders (5-5, 4.15 ERA, 95.1 IP, 95 Ks in '16), one of the few pitchers to remain healthy last season.

Also in line for a weekend starting spot are no fewer than three of the Tommy John veterans: freshman lefty Shane McClanahan, junior righty Peter Strzelecki, and senior righty Ryan Valdes. All three redshirted in 2016.

McClanahan is ranked No. 3 on Baseball America's list of the AAC's top 2018 draft prospects. Brawny rookie right-hander D.J. Roberts (6-foot-1, 235 pounds), is ranked fourth among AAC freshmen.   

Sophomore lefty Andrew Perez, whom Kingston says has made a "huge jump" from a velocity standpoint, is the leading candidate to replace '16 closer Tommy Eveld, now in the Diamondbacks organization.

"We have options, now it's a matter of figuring out how to put the best pieces of the puzzle together," Kingston said. "But I like the pieces, I can tell you that."

2017 USF Baseball
Coach: Mark Kingston (third season at USF, 58-59-1; eighth season overall, 231-161-1)
First pitch: vs. Iowa, Friday, 6:30 p.m., USF Baseball Stadium
Need to know: Look for this year's team to possess a better slugging percentage -- and seasoning -- than last year's rookie-laden lineup. Kingston returns five position players who started at least 38 games as freshmen last season. In the first five intrasquad games, USF hit 10 homers, Kingston said. ... The top 2017 draft prospect is SS Kevin Merrell (.320, 22 RBIs in '16), a preseason all-conference pick (and Steinbrenner High alumnus). ... Don't look for former unanimous first-team all-conference C Levi Borders in Friday's lineup. Borders redshirted after missing the last 41 games of '16 with a mysterious bacterial infection, and remains sidelined. ... The freshman class includes four bay area players: INF Nick Cerelli (Plant), INF/OF Anthony Gonnella (Riverview), RHP Carson Ragsdale (Bishop McLaughlin) and C Jordan Santos (TNXL Academy, Tampa Catholic).

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USF's Laksa, Henshaw honored by AAC

USF sophomore Kitija Laksa has been named American Athletic Conference Player of the Week.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

USF sophomore Kitija Laksa has been named American Athletic Conference Player of the Week.

For the third time this season, USF sophomore Kitija Laksa has been named American Athletic Conference Player of the Week.

Laksa scored 34 points on the road Wednesday as the Bulls rallied past East Carolina, and scored 21 in Sunday's 66-56 home triumph against Tulane. In those two contests, she shot a collective 50 percent (7-of-14) from 3-point range.

Meantime, 6-foot-1 rookie Tamara Henshaw was named Rookie of the Week for the second time.

Henshaw tallied her third career double-double (11 points, 10 rebounds) at East Carolina, and flirted with her fourth (eight points, 10 boards) Sunday against Tulane. All eight of her points came in the second half, and her four blocks were a career-high.

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UF's Barnhill handcuffs Bulls in 8-0 romp

An opening weekend rife with drama ended with a drubbing for USF.

Florida sophomore right-hander Kelly Barnhill came a hit shy of a six-inning perfect game, striking out 12 in the third-ranked Gators' 8-0 romp of the No. 24 Bulls (3-1) before a standing-room-only crowd of 2,332 Sunday afternoon at USF Softball Stadium.

"That was one of the best pitching performances I've ever seen in college," said Bulls coach Ken Eriksen, who has seen more than 2,400 of them in 20-plus seasons as Bulls coach.

USF opened its season Friday with a 5-4 win against Illinois (on freshman Bethaney Keen's walk-off homer) and used a four-run sixth inning Saturday to rally for a 6-4 triumph against No. 6 Michigan.

But that offensive magic never materialized against Barnhill, a current member of the U.S. national team coached by Eriksen. Only Astin Donovan's fourth-inning single wiped out Barnhill's shot at a perfect game.

"They moved the mound back for (Olympic gold medalist) Michele Granger back in 1987, and golly, if they don't try to think about moving the mound back after today..." Eriksen said.

"What you witnessed today was pretty special. (Barnhill's) ball had so much movement, late-breaking stuff besides velocity. When you're throwing 73, 74 (mph) you've got to respect velocity. And then she throws the movement in at the end. It's unfair."

Sophomore Amanda Lorenz finished with five RBIs and had one of Florida's three home runs.

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