Stretch run "crucial" for USF women
A month ago, the suggestion seemed outrageous. When the Bulls women were deep and dominant and seemingly destined for late-March competition, the notion seemed crazy.
At that point, few believed a season once poised for a breakthrough might be headed for the bubble. Yet entering the stretch run, the possibility lurks.
"The next four games are crucial," said Coach Jose Fernandez, whose 19th-ranked club (18-7) hosts Memphis on Sunday in a rematch of the Tigers' 88-87 overtime win Jan. 20.
"We're 18-7 and the NCAA bid's not a lock if we don't take care of business here down the stretch. The NCAA committee doesn't care if you've been in the top 25 in both polls. The polls have nothing to do with the people in that room."
A month ago, Fernandez's comments might have been translated as cautious coachspeak. In the wake of Monday's 67-50 loss at 11th-ranked Louisville, rhetoric is evolving into reality.
Monday's defeat, in which Wooden Award candidate Courtney Williams (25 points, 10 rebounds) got precious little offensive help, dropped the Bulls to 1-5 against RPI top-50 competition. Throw in a two-point loss at Temple two weekends ago, and USF has lost two of its last four.
And while USF's RPI (42) remains solid, it's seeding might not. Currently, ESPN women's bracketologist Charlie Creme lists USF as a dreaded No. 8 seed in the Lexington, Ky., region.
"Definitely our kids and staff and everybody else probably (didn't) expect where we're at right now, that's for sure," Fernandez said. "But you lose four games by a total of (10) points, that'll do it to you."
Things won't get any easier. Three of the four remaining foes on the Bulls' regular season schedule -- Memphis, Temple and top-ranked UConn -- already have defeated USF this year. All three also possess winning records. Additionally, Fernandez's club may not be at full strength for all four contests.
Though Fernandez insists senior F Alisia Jenkins is no longer bothered by the bone bruise in her left ankle, versatile sophomore Laura Ferreira (10.1 ppg, 4.9 rpg) remains day-to-day with a torn plantar fascia that has sidelined her the last six games.
Ferreira recently got a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection, but still experiences pain when taking her initial steps each day, Fernandez said.
"Everybody knows we're definitely a different team without her on the floor," Fernandez said.
Now, it must be a resilient one. Otherwise, Selection Monday could get a little tense.
"We've got four games left," Fernandez said. "If we do our part, we'll have three more in the conference tournament, so that's seven. So we're 18-7 right now, and then you've got Selection Monday.
"It's holding serve here at home, taking care of our home floor, and making sure we go on the road and do what we need to do against Tulsa and Connecticut."