Women's basketball: A closer look
Lots to say about Tuesday's introduction to the 2007-08 USF women's basketball team. First, that opponents won't come weaker than Bethune-Cookman, which finished last season 5-25, with an RPI of 335 out of 335 teams, according to RPIratings.com. So the Bulls showed they can win by 35 points against the easiest opponent they'll have. In two days, they get No. 10 Duke, which as Jose Fernandez said, is "two different spectrums." First thoughts, starting with the starters and addressing subs in the order they entered the game:
Returning starters: Shantia Grace and ChiChi Okpaleke: Grace didn't score in seven minutes of first-half play, then exploded for 11 points in the first four minutes after halftime, finishing with 14, including 4-of-5 shooting on 3-pointers. Okpaleke only took one shot in 15 minutes, adding four rebounds.
New starters: Point guard Jazmine Sepulveda, forward Ashley Sanders, center Jessica Lawson. Sepulveda showed quickness and range, going 4-for-6 on 3s with six assists and three steals. I have heard good things on Sanders, but she had a ho-hum four points and four boards in 19 minutes. Lawson, like Grace, was much better in the second half, going 4-for-5 and finishing with 16 points and six boards. Lawson hasn't played since March 2005 and looked much better than she did in the exhibition loss to the Miami Sun.
15:51 left, first half: Sophomore Caitlyn Mitryk. Versatile sub, with size to play forward but ball-handling skills to be a backup point guard. Had an assist and block in her first minute on the court. USF's bench went 3-for-19 on 3-pointers, but Mitryk had more assists (4) than turnovers (3).
15:03 left: Sophomore forward Porche Grant. Got very few minutes during Big East play last year, but she looked much improved as the game's most aggressive rebounder. She had 14 boards to go with seven points in a team-high 27 minutes. Four turnovers isn't good, but it's important for her to establish herself early before transfer Brittany Denson is eligible next month.
14:35 left: Freshman guard Gianna Messina. Made the most of her 12 minutes, with five points, four rebounds, two assists and a steal. She's a hustler, so much so that Jose Fernandez had to remind her not to dive to save a ball under your own basket. Lots of promise, even while going 0-for-4 on 3s.
14:01 left: Sophomore center Melissa Dalembert. Came in when Lawson got her second foul. My vote for most improved player. Last year she looked lost and unsure on the court; tonight she played with confidence and comfort. Got seven points and five boards in 20 minutes, after not playing more than 7 minutes in any game as a freshman. She had two steals, which is one more than in all of last season. Very promising start.
11:42 left: Senior guard Daiane Packer. Her strength is her shooting, and she went 1-for-6 on 3-pointers. Did the other things well though, with four rebounds and three steals. The rebounds is a career high, and the three steals is one more than she totaled last season.
7:32 left: Freshman guard Lonnie Terrell. Scored USF's final four points in the last 1:43 of the game, and she's got a unique shooting style, can't really explain it easily. Seems like a good slasher and finisher on fast breaks, but she pulled up and hit shots, too.
-- Overall thoughts: Fernandez only played his starters 96 minutes out of 200, which shows him taking advantage of a chance to explore his depth. Sepulveda was the only starter playing more than 19 minutes, and obviously that will change against Duke on Thursday. Still, the Bulls hit 11 3-pointers, matching the fourth-best total ever. Going 11-for-20 on free throws is not a good sign, especially when you consider that last year's opener saw the Bulls go 19-for-22 at the line. And 55 percent wouldn't have been the worst effort last season -- that'd be .500 against St. Joseph's and .452 against Vandy.
Crowd was generously announced as being 927, which on paper is up from the 785 for last year's home opener against Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The actual crowd was sparse enough I did an actual head count late in the first half, and came up with 375 fans, including 50 for the band. Believe me, it's Bethune-Cookman on a Tuesday night, but it's not the strongest statement to make to open women's basketball season in the city that hosts the Women's Final Four with a crowd like that.
Thoughts from anyone who attended? How many of you guys are going to Thursday's doubleheader? If you like women's basketball, it doesn't get much better than Candace Parker vs. Courtney Paris, with Tennessee and Oklahoma meeting after USF-Duke in a game that could easily be repeated here in April.