As ankle throbs, so does Flores' fortitude
The pain in her throbbing right ankle wasn't quite as profound as the agony of helplessly watching her team's NCAA Tournament hopes fracture.
USF junior PG Laia Flores hadn't played a minute of that first half at East Carolina, which ended with the Bulls trailing by two. The initial plan was for Flores not to play at all. But a second consecutive loss to a conference foe with a losing record may have left a permanent smudge on the Bulls' NCAA resume.
So when Coach Jose Fernandez approached Flores at halftime, the Spain native leaped -- at least figuratively -- at the opportunity to go in.
"He came to me, he was like, 'Do you think you can give us some minutes?'" said Flores, who had badly turned the ankle in the first quarter of a loss at Memphis three nights before. "And I said, 'Yeah, I'm fine.'"
Flores hasn't come off the floor since.
Despite an injury still essentially requiring round-the-clock treatment, Flores played the entire second half Wednesday at East Carolina as USF rallied for a 76-66 triumph. On Sunday against Tulane, she had 10 points, six assists and four rebounds in 40 minutes as the No. 22 Bulls prevailed, 66-56.
"I'd take her in a back alley with me. That's toughness," Fernandez said following Sunday's game. "We got back and X-rayed and had everything looked at, but the swelling and the pain that she has had to play through these last 60 minutes has been big."
How big? Without Flores, it's conceivable the Bulls could've ended this week on a three-game losing streak and skidding head-on toward the tournament bubble.
But with Sunday's victory against a top-50 RPI foe, they clinched the program's fifth consecutive 20-win season (20-4, 9-2 American) and appear in excellent position for their third consecutive NCAA berth.
"She's battling an injury and she's going through it just for the team, to help us," said sophomore Kitija Laksa, who scored 21 Sunday. "She's our only point guard because the rest of them (freshman Enna Pehadzic, juco transfer Nachalie DeJesus) are hurt.
"I mean, she's the heart of our team."
Flores said she has spent the last week "living in the training room" with head athletic trainer Michele Latimer, and icing the ankle at home. She said it initially was sore Sunday, but felt better as she started running.
To a degree, the discomfort likely will linger Tuesday, when the Bulls host vastly improved UCF.
But as the stakes of a season rise, so too can one's pain threshold. The proof's in the point guard.
"I don't think I or (Latimer) could've kept her out of the second half at East Carolina, to be honest with you," Fernandez said.
"Our kids are aware of road wins and RPI and strength of schedule and everything like that. But I think also it's the close-knit unit that this group has, and the care for one another and the respect they have for one another. When you're playing for each other and playing for the guy next to you, that means a lot."