Egbunu granted release from USF

John Egbunu set a school freshman rebounding record and made the American Athletic Conference's All-Rookie Team.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

John Egbunu set a school freshman rebounding record and made the American Athletic Conference's All-Rookie Team.

USF 6-foot-10 C John Egbunu, who set a school freshman rebounding record and made the American Athletic Conference's All-Rookie Team, has been granted his release from the school.

The cornerstone of the Bulls' nationally-lauded 2013 signing class, Egbunu becomes the fifth scholarship player to exit since Coach Stan Heath's dismissal in mid-March. Walk-on Shemiye McLendon, who averaged nearly 20 minutes last season, also isn't expected back.

The school also announced the exit of G Javontae Hawkins, whose departure was first reported by the Tampa Bay Times on Saturday.

"We appreciate their contributions to our program and wish them the best of luck in their future endeavors," USF executive associate athletic director Barry Clements said in a three-paragraph news release.

Egbunu and Hawkins join F Zach LeDay, G Musa Abdul-Aleem and PG Josh Heath as the Bulls' departures. Counting incoming freshmen shooting guards Troy Holston and Dinero Mercurius, USF has eight players on scholarship -- five below the NCAA limit -- for the 2014-15 season. …

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Hoosiers opt out of USF series, will play FIU instead

The USF football team's two-game home-and-home series with Big Ten foe Indiana is off.

USF confirmed the Hoosiers have excercised their buyout option on the series, which was slated to begin in 2015 in Tampa and conclude the following year in Bloomington. The buyout will cost IU $500,000, USF athletic department spokesman Brian Siegrist said.

The news arrives the same day FIU announced it has agreed to a home-and-home series with the Hoosiers. The Panthers travel to Bloomington on Sept. 12, 2015 -- the same day the Bulls were to host IU.

The Bulls and Hoosiers agreed to the series in the 2006, with the games initially slated for 2009 and '11. They were postponed in part to allow USF to squeeze in a four-year series (2010-13) with Miami.

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Historic day for USF tennis

USF's men's tennis team celebrates its victory Sunday at Memphis in the American Athletic Conference tournament final.

Photo provided by Brad Vest

USF's men's tennis team celebrates its victory Sunday at Memphis in the American Athletic Conference tournament final.

The most glorious afternoon in USF tennis history didn't just materialize Sunday. It was formed by comebacks, fashioned by clutch singles efforts, even forged by some home-crowd raucousness.

By its end, the Bulls men's and women's teams had won their respective American Athletic
Conference tournaments, within a couple of hours and one time zone of each other. They join the men's soccer team as the school's inaugural American team champions.

We'd be remiss if we let the landmark day pass without reflecting on some of the highlights and historic footnotes:

* The conference title was the first for the men since 2009, and the women's first since '07. USF was a member of the Big East both those seasons.

* Bulls sophomore Roberto Cid, who finished the tournament 3-0 in singles matches and 1-0 in doubles play, was named the men's tournament's most outstanding player.

* Both teams toppled the No. 1 seed in Sunday's finals, with the No. 3-seeded women upsetting
Houston 4-2, and the second-seeded men eking out a 4-3 win against Memphis on the Tigers'
home court.

* The men's triumph came exactly one week after a 4-3 loss to the Tigers at the same site. Junior Oliver Pramming and freshman Sasha Gozun, USF's No. 2 and 3 singles players, respectively, avenged losses to the same players who had defeated them the prior Sunday.

* Both teams had to rally Sunday after dropping the doubles point.

* Trailing Rocio Martin 2-5 in the first-set tie-breaker of her No. 5 singles match, Bulls freshman Vera Bessonova rallied for a 7-6, 6-1 win to clinch the team championship.

* Among those watching the three-hour women's match at the USF Varsity Courts was President Judy Genshaft and former athletic director Doug Woolard.

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Bulls add Mercurius as 2 more depart

USF veteran guard Musa Abdul-Aleem, who graduated in December, is one of four players to leave the program since Stan Heath's dismissal.

OCTAVIO JONES I Times

USF veteran guard Musa Abdul-Aleem, who graduated in December, is one of four players to leave the program since Stan Heath's dismissal.

The roster overhaul at USF continued Saturday with the Bulls' new coaching staff adding a signee as two more letter winners departed.

Veteran guards Javontae Hawkins and Musa Abdul-Aleem have left the program, becoming the third and fourth players to depart since the dismissal of Coach Stan Heath in mid-March. Meantime, the school confirmed the signing of Faith Baptist guard Dinero Mercurius.
 
Hawkins, a rising junior from Flint, Mich., essentially confirmed his exit via Twitter on Saturday: Ppl try to keep you around, but they don't understand enough is enough. It's time for a new start

He appeared in 29 games last season, averaging 3.7 points with a career-high 15 in a home loss to Cincinnati. It was his only double-figure scoring effort of the year.

Abdul-Aleem, a rising senior from Atlanta, graduated in December with a degree in leadership studies. Counted on to provide a long-range threat last season, he missed 14 games for various reasons and struggled mightily from 3-point range (16-for-67).

When asked about Abdul-Aleem's struggles in early February, Heath said: "All mental, just all mental."

Hawkins and Abdul-Aleem join point guard Josh Heath -- Stan's son -- and power forward Zach LeDay on USF's departure list. With Mercurius and fall signee Troy Holston -- another shooting guard -- both on board, the Bulls' current roster now features nine scholarship players.

Mercurius, who signed at his Orlando home Thursday, joins Holston as incoming rookies projected to help the Bulls' 3-point shooting, which ranked last in Division I (25.8 percent) last season.

A native of The Bronx, he averaged 17 points -- including three games of 30 or more -- last season for Faith Baptist, a non-FHSAA program that plays a national independent schedule. From 2009-13, he played for Orlando University.

"I'm excited about both Troy and Dinero coming to USF," new Bulls coach Orlando Antigua said in a statement. "They are two great young men who are really long, active wings and can really shoot the ball and work extremely hard."

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Men's hoops notes: LeDay transferring

Tying up a few Friday loose ends:

USF sophomore F Zach LeDay announced early Friday evening via Twitter he's transferring, becoming the second Bulls underclassmen to depart since Coach Stan Heath's dismissal. LeDay's tweet:

Wanna thank god for blessing me in my learning experience at USF, but it is time 4 me to move on and continue my career else where #godbless

A physical, brawny (6-foot-7, 245 pounds) post presence from north Texas, LeDay started 16 games this past season, averaging 3.5 points and 2.6 boards.

His minutes (15 per game) diminished slightly from his freshman year (16.9) as frontcourt newcomers John Egbunu and Chris Perry evolved into American Athletic Conference All-Rookie team selections. It's unclear whether LeDay fit into the plans of the Bulls' new coaching staff, which has stressed its desire to increase tempo.

He joins PG Josh Heath, who has transferred to Georgia Tech, as the Bulls' departures. Presuming no one else moves on and Faith Baptist combo G Dinero Mercurius sends in his letter of intent, USF would appear to have one remaining available scholarship.

* USF still has made no official announcement regarding Mercurius, a 6-4 long-range specialist who averaged 17 points last winter. Mercurius signed his letter of intent Thursday night according to Faith Baptist coach Kenny Gillion.  

* The school released the salaries of its newest assistants. Rod Strickland will earn $175,000 next season, slightly more than Oliver Antigua ($155,000). Director of basketball operations Jerry McCullough will make $80,000.

Coach Orlando Antigua has a $700,000 staff salary pool for his first season. The remaining $290,000 will be used to pay a third assistant and perhaps one or two other staffers (i.e. video coordinator, administrative assistant). …

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Prep coach: Mercurius has signed with USF

Faith Baptist combo guard Dinero Mercurius, the final commitment of former USF coach Stan Heath, has signed his letter of intent with the Bulls, his prep-school coach said.

Faith Baptist coach Kenny Gillion, whose Brandon-based non-FHSAA program plays an independent national schedule, said Mercurius signed Thursday night at his Orlando home. USF had not announced the signing as of early Friday afternoon.

The NCAA's spring signing period began Wednesday.

Mercurius would become the latest in a succession of Eagles point guards to reach the Division I level, joining Kareem Canty (Marshall), Shawn Smith (Texas A&M), Deshaun Morman (Cincinnati) and Rasham Suarez (Southern Miss).

Mercurius' stats from this past season (17 ppg, six assists) were the best of any of them for a single year at FBC, Gillion said.

A senior at Orlando University in 2013, Mercurius (6-foot-4, 180 pounds) enrolled at Faith Baptist and reclassified for the Class of '14. His long-range touch addresses USF's most glaring need; the Bulls finished last in Division I in 3-point percentage last season.

 

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Baseball: Bulls embark on critical closing stretch

USF sophomore RHP Jimmy Herget gets starts tonight against 12th-ranked Houston.

WILL VRAGOVIC I Times

USF sophomore RHP Jimmy Herget gets starts tonight against 12th-ranked Houston.

Statement time has arrived, and the Bulls can ill afford to squander a syllable.

USF's case for an NCAA regional must commence tonight at Houston's Cougar Field, where the Bulls (21-15, 7-5 American Athletic Conference) embark on a three-game series against the 12th-ranked Cougars (27-9, 4-5). 

Any postponement of momentum will be too late. The Bulls, 0-4 against ranked opposition this year, not only must find their groove tonight, but remain in it. If they can, a postseason berth is salvageable.

Half of USF's last 20 games are against teams ranked in a top-25 poll, with seven of those on the road. A 7-3 record against ranked foes down the stretch would give USF a .500 season mark against top-25 teams and boost its feeble RPI (159th per college RPI expert Warren Nolan).

The Bulls enter tonight's game on a two-game win streak following Tuesday's 10-3 home rout of Stetson. They take a .270 team batting average into the Houston series, where they'll face a weekend rotation with a collective ERA below 2.50.

Bulls sophomore RHP Jimmy Herget (5-4), whose 1.03 ERA leads the conference, starts tonight, followed by junior RHP Casey Mulholland (3-0, 3.19 ERA) on Friday and redshirt freshman RHP Tommy Peterson (3-1, 1.93) on Saturday.

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Men's basketball: For now, all Bulls on board

Orlando Antigua, who spent the past five seasons as a Kentucky assistant, said any potential Wildcats-USF series is far down the line. "I'm sure somewhere down the line that may be a conversation to have," he said.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

Orlando Antigua, who spent the past five seasons as a Kentucky assistant, said any potential Wildcats-USF series is far down the line. "I'm sure somewhere down the line that may be a conversation to have," he said.

He's still struggling to differentiate between Fowler and Fletcher, let alone remember the passcode to his office. New home? Orlando Antigua's only real address these days is the Muma Basketball Center.

"It's still a whirlwind," USF's new men's coach said.

Yet for now, stability presides at the center of it. Antigua may have lost his sense of direction a time or two in his new environment, but he apparently has lost no players.

That includes PG Anthony Collins. Amid speculation the Bulls' sleek veteran is pondering a transfer in the wake of former coach Stan Heath's disimissal, Antigua said Wednesday that Collins has shined in the Bulls' inaugural workouts with the new staff.

"He's been great in the workouts, going really hard, getting his conditioning better," Antigua told reporters Wednesday. "I just think he's a heck of a talent. Just hope to keep pushing him and help him keep working."

Only one player -- Heath's son, Josh -- has exited since Heath's dismissal, but even that was before Antigua was hired. While some roster turnover is conceivable once the semester ends later this month, Antigua said the handful of preliminary workouts have been encouraging.

"What I can tell you is, the last few days we've been able to work with them...they've been great," Antigua said.

"They've been energetic, they've been into everything that we're doing, and I appreciate that. So hopefully they're seeing that even in that short period of time, they've gotten better."

Collins, the lone holdover from USF's 2012 NCAA Tournament team, missed all of conference play last season due to complications from summer surgery to remove an inflamed bursa sac from his left knee.

Antigua didn't elaborate on Collins physical progress, but said, "I think he's got a bright future."

Meantime, Antigua's new assistants, younger brother Oliver and 17-year NBA veteran PG Rod Strickland, also sat down briefly with reporters Wednesday. Some highlights:

* The Antigua brothers concurred USF will try to sign at least one player during the NCAA's spring signing period, which began Wednesday. "Everything is on the table: transfers, jucos, high school kids, best available," Oliver Antigua said.

"At this point, when you get the job so late, it's very important that you don't do a knee-jerk reaction...but you try to find good pieces that can fit. So that's the hardest part." 

* Strickland, who served on John Calipari's staffs at Memphis and Kentucky following the end of his NBA career, said he was taken aback by the quality of USF's facilities.

"I don't know if I should say this but I was shocked," he said. "And just shocked because I didn't know. ... I walked in and was like, 'Wow.'

* Orlando Antigua, who spent the past five seasons as a Kentucky assistant, said any potential Wildcats-USF series is far down the line. "I'm sure somewhere down the line that may be a conversation to have," he said.

"The way (Calipari) has been with his former assistants, he doesn't like to play them if he has a choice. But if it benefits the program then he's willing to do it."

* Oliver Antigua said recruiting USF's backyard is a major priority. "Very important," he said. "Tons of talent in the next few classes. We've already reached out to the top players and the coaches. It's going to be a priority."

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USF women expected to sign juco All-American

Two-time junior college All-America PG Briana Brooks is one of two women's players expected to sign with USF on Wednesday, when the NCAA's signing period for basketball (and most other sports) commences.

Spaniard Laia Flores, a point guard for her nation's under-18 team, also is expected to sign.

Brooks, who hails from Tyler, Texas, was a two-time first-team NJCAA All-American and conference player of the year at Weatherford (Texas) College. As a freshman, she led her conference in scoring (17.7 ppg), assists (7.9) and steals (2.7).

As a sophomore, she averaged 18.6 points and seven assists, leading the Coyotes to their second consecutive North Texas Junior College Athletic Conference title. 

Flores averaged nine points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.9 assists in nine games for Spain's under-16 team in the 2012 European Championships, where it won eight of nine games. Her under-18 team won the title a year later, with Flores averaging four points, two boards and 1.4 assists.

Bulls coach Jose Fernandez loses only two seniors -- G Inga Orekhova and C Akila McDonald -- from last season's 23-13 team that reached the WNIT semifinals.

One of his early signees, 5-11 Portuguese national team member Laura Ferreira, recently was rated 49th on the espnW HoopGurlz top 100 national rankings for the Class of '14.

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Inga Orekhova drafted by WNBA's Atlanta Dream

Four months after returning to action only 12 days following knee surgery, Inga Orekhova has pulled off the unprecedented again.

The 6-foot-2 guard from Ukraine became USF's highest WNBA Draft selection Monday night, going to the Atlanta Dream with the 18th overall pick (second round). She becomes the Bulls' third WNBA draftee, joining Jessica Dickson (21st overall, 2007) and Andrea Smith (35th, '13). …

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Antigua hires 3 staffers, including brother

As expected, new USF coach Orlando Antigua has filled two of his staff openings, hiring younger brother Oliver and 17-year NBA veteran Rod Strickland as assistants.

The hirings were formally announced by the school Monday evening. Jerry McCullough, a New York City prep coach and former teammate of Orlando Antigua's at Pitt, was named director of basketball operations.

The hirings leave Antigua with one more assistant vacancy on his coaching staff. The newcomers' contracts weren't immediately available, but Antigua has a $700,000 salary pool for next season to distribute among three assistants and a director of basketball operations.

Oliver Antigua's arrival hardly should trigger any nepotism alarms. Bulls women's soccer coach Denise Schilte-Brown is assisted by her husband, Chris; and the husband-wife tandem of Jim Baxter and Michele Woods-Baxter serve on women's basketball coach Jose Fernandez's staff.

"Oliver is a terrific recruiter and coaches with great energy and passion which will benefit us here at USF," Orlando Antigua said in a USF news release. "He helped assemble a recruiting class at Seton Hall that was ranked No. 10 in the nation and No. 1 in the Big East Conference."

Prior to his one season at Seton Hall, Oliver spent the 2012-13 season as an assistant to Steve Masiello at Manhattan. Masiello was USF's first choice for its coaching job before inaccuracies were discovered on his resume.

He also spent 13 seasons as coach at St. Raymond High in the Bronx (the Antigua brothers' alma mater), leading the Ravens to five Catholic High School Athletic Association Class AA titles.

The hiring of Strickland, who served with Orlando Antigua on John Calipari's staff at Kentucky, arrives with more scrutiny.

A two-time All-American at DePaul and former first-round draft choice of the New York Knicks, Strickland has four DUI-related arrests, the most recent in 2010.

Following the last arrest, in Lexington, Strickland reportedly flew to former NBA star John Lucas' Houston-based drug treatment program and stayed three months. He has since remained a special assistant to Calipari on the Wildcats' staff. …

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Josh Heath commits to Georgia Tech

Two weeks after being granted his release from USF, freshman PG Josh Heath has found a new college home.

The former Tampa Prep standout, who led the Terrapins to their only state championship in 2012, is transferring to Georgia Tech. The news was confirmed by his father Stan, who was dismissed as Bulls coach on March 14. Stan Heath said his son will be a scholarship player for the ACC program.

Josh Heath visited the Yellow Jackets' downtown Atlanta campus this weekend. Jackets coach Brian Gregory and Stan Heath were assistants to Michigan State coach Tom Izzo when the Spartans won the 2000 national title.

Though NCAA rules typically require Division I transfers to sit out a season, Heath is expected to be eligible immediately. The NCAA consistently has granted eligibility waivers to student-athletes whose fathers lose their coaching jobs.

Heath, forced to relinquish his redshirt in January due to PG Anthony Collins' lingering knee problems, had 62 assists and 27 turnovers in 17 games for the Bulls (12-20).

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No-no for Nevins...and a milestone to boot

As part of her enslavement to ritual, USF left-hander Sara Nevins repeatedly pounds the ball into her glove between pitches -- and even between innings -- until it lands flush in the webbing.

The welt on her right ring finger attests to the superstition.

"It's bruised and swollen from it," the Pinellas Park alumnus said. "If I throw it low and it goes low into the glove, I feel like I'm going to throw a ball the next pitch. I have to do it like, one to three times before I get a strike."

On a warm, sunny Saturday, that discolored finger was Nevins' lone blemish of the afternoon.

The Bulls' senior ace recorded her 1,000th career strikeout in the fourth inning against UCF, then delivered an encore: her seventh career no-hitter in a 4-0 victory in Game One of a doubleheader. UCF won the second, 3-1.

Nevins is only the 80th Division I player -- and fifth active pitcher -- to hit the 1,000-strikeout mark. Her total stands at 1,003 after fanning 10 Knights and allowing only two base runners. …

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Softball: Nevins nearing millenial mark

USF senior pitcher Sara Nevins is seven strikeouts shy of 1,000 for her career.

DANIEL WALLACE I Times

USF senior pitcher Sara Nevins is seven strikeouts shy of 1,000 for her career.

Human nature suggests Bulls fans may have grown mildly numb to left-hander Sara Nevins' repetitive torment of batters over the last four springs. Ken Eriksen suggests it too.

"We're here in Tampa and...the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence and it's not exotic because it's in your hometown," USF's veteran softball coach said. "But that's pretty exotic stuff."

Pretty exclusive stuff as well.

Nevins, named Thursday as one of 25 finalists for the USA Softball Player of the Year Award, needs only seven more strikeouts to become the fifth active Division I pitcher with 1,000 for her career. 

Considering the opposition, it's a milestone as credible as the Pinellas Park alumnus' fastball. Of Nevins' school-record 993 strikeouts, 140 (14.1 percent) have come against ranked opposition. Her 189 strikeouts this season rank ninth nationally.

"It's not an every-year occurrence. Actually it's not an every-four-year occurrence," Eriksen said.

"I think you're probably going to see the end of an era from that right now, simply because the hitters are so much better. So when you're spending four years against the schedule she has played against, that's pretty special."

Nevins can hit the millenial mark Saturday, when the Bulls (29-11, 3-3 American Athletic Conference) host UCF in a doubleheader starting at 1 p.m..

Quality K's
USF senior left-hander Sara Nevins has posted double-digit strikeout totals against four ranked opponents in her career:

Opponent/Year/Strikeouts/Result
Michigan/2014/10/L, 2-3
FSU/2012/11/W, 2-1
Florida/2012/12/W, 1-0
Michigan/2011/13/L, 2-7

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Huskies give conference some cred

The succession of shining moments forged by Connecticut's men and women basketball teams in the last three weekends provided a few beams to a fledgling conference in dire need of them.

Even as it regresses into a mid-major football league by most observations, the American Athletic Conference has some serious hoops cache today, courtesy of mainly the Huskies.

From the men's standpoint, that status isn't likely to be deflated by the exits of Louisville and Rutgers (and arrivals of Tulsa, Tulane, East Carolina and ultimately Navy). Consider:

* American men's teams were a combined 13-4 in postseason play, giving the league the highest postseason winning percentage (.765) in the nation. Louisville accounted for only two wins and a loss in that equation.

* The American went 9-3 in the NCAA men's tournament for a winning percentage (.750) that trailed only the SEC (.800).

* The league accounted for three of the five men's Associated Press first-team All-Americans: UConn G Shabazz Napier, Cincinnati G Sean Kilpatrick and Louisville G Russ Smith. 

* The American is the only league in the nation to place a team in the semifinal rounds of the NCAA men's and women's tournament, the NIT and WNIT. Each championship game of those tournaments featured a conference team

* For the second year in a row, it will enter a season (2014-15) with the reigning men's and women's NCAA champion.

Statistically, the American ended the season with the only men's player in the country with a triple-double (Napier). Four men's teams (Cincinnati, Louisville, SMU, UConn) finished among the country's top 36 in scoring defense and the top 20 in field-goal percentage defense. 

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