Fernandez: Winter storm was 'hurricane with snow'
TAMPA -- Jose Fernandez vividly remembers Hurricane Andrew in Miami some 20 years ago, being huddled in a closet with his mother and brother, going weeks without power and ultimately flying to stay with family in Chicago as the damage from the storm was cleared and the recovery began.
On Friday night, listening to the howling wind from his hotel room as USF's women's basketball coach was bunkered down in Providence, R.I., the massive winter storm seemed familiar to him.
"It was something you couldn't really describe," said Fernandez, whose team flew in Thursday to arrive before the storm. "I felt hurricane winds in my hotel room, howling winds. You looked out, and it was just white. It was like a hurricane with snow."
On Saturday morning, the sightseer in him went downstairs, wanting to see the snow piled up, and it was high enough he couldn't turn the revolving door in the hotel lobby. The Bulls' game at Providence, originally bumped from 2 p.m. Saturday to 7:30 p.m., was shifted again to 1 p.m. Sunday to allow for better cleanup; that meant the Bulls were stuck in a hotel for more than 24 hours leading up to the game.
The Bulls worked out on treadmills and elliptical machines in the Renaissance fitness room; with a limited hotel staff, they ate meals in five-person sessions. Tired of eating the same food and needing a break Saturday, they ventured across an enclosed walkway in downtown Providence to ... a different hotel, where they watched USF's men's team play and had dinner.
"It was pretty nuts," Fernandez said.
Understandably, the Bulls played poorly in the first half ("we sleepwalked," he said), with Fernandez using 12 players before halftime as USF went into the break with just a 28-23 lead. What followed was like a change of seasons: a dominant second half in which the Bulls shot 61 percent from the field and led by as many as 36 points before closing out an 82-54 rout.
"It was like a racehorse that took off," said Fernandez, whose team is 16-6 and 5-4 in the Big East, needing a strong push in the final seven regular-season games to make a case for the NCAA Tournament. "Our kids know what's at stake. Our backs are against the wall. We've got to get to 20 wins and finish in the top six in the league to get to the tournament."
The weather woes weren't over for the Bulls, who couldn't fly out of Rhode Island and took a four-hour bus ride to New York, staying overnight and waking up at 5:15 a.m. Monday to fly home to Tampa. Landing at 11:30, they practiced 45 minutes later, watched video and sent players home for much-needed rest in the comfort of home.
USF had been scheduled to play St. John's in the Sun Dome today, but the Big East granted USF's request to move the game to Wednesday at 4 p.m., the early tipoff required to honor a TV commitment. Fernandez said USF had asked the Big East to fly Providence to Tampa for Saturday's game, offering to play next year's home game in Providence, but the league chose not to change the schedule.
"We're very thankful," Fernandez said. "From a competitive standpoint, it was the right thing to do."
Wednesday is the first of four bubble games in the final seven that give the Bulls a chance to earn just the second NCAA bid in the program's history. The computer ratings are split on the Bulls -- the RPI has them at No. 68, while the Sagarin ratings like the Bulls at No. 37. Beating St. John's (RPI 51) on Wednesday is a must, but the Bulls also get Syracuse (RPI 35) at home and play Rutgers (RPI 52) and Georgetown (RPI 38) on the road.
If the Bulls can win Saturday against Seton Hall (RPI 219) and take three of those four bubble games -- or pull off a win at No. 10 Louisville or at home on March 2 against No. 3 Connecticut -- they'd be at 20 wins with a winning record in the Big East. That and holding seed in the conference tournament could be enough to get USF a bid to NCAAs.