USF women eager for UConn, coach's return

15

February

He has spent most of the week communicating with a data plan instead of decibels. At the most inopportune juncture of the season, Jose Fernandez has been forced to lean on 2014 technology far more than he'd like.

This latest hospitalization, spanning five nights, has forced him to coach via keystrokes.

"He gets in touch with us most every day," said USF senior Akila McDonald, referring to the text messages she periodically has received from Fernandez this week. "We've been doing the same things pretty much, it's just that you don't have Jose's voice in your ear."

Sunday, they likely will. It may be missing a little bombast, but few doubt Fernandez, 42, still will be able to hit every compassionate key. This is, after all, the UConn game.

Released from a local hospital Friday afternoon following a nasty allergic reaction to prescribed medication, Fernandez sat through the Bulls' practice later that day.

"Just really tired," he said in a text message Friday evening.

He's expected to be on the bench Sunday when USF (13-10, 8-4 American Athletic Conference) hosts the top-ranked Huskies (25-0, 12-0). Tip-off at the Sun Dome is 4 p.m.

By his side will be veteran assistants Jeff Osterman and Michele Woods-Baxter, who have grown far more familiar with taking over in a pinch than anyone might have imagined at the season's outset.

Two weeks ago, Fernandez was hospitalized two nights -- and missed the Feb. 2 game at Louisville -- after suffering a recurrence of diverticulitis as well as inflammation in an area in which he had a hernia removed last year.

It turned out to be a scrimmage of sorts for the four full days the team didn't have him earlier this week.

"Jose's been in contact with them a lot," Woods-Baxter said Thursday. "They've been texting him non-stop and talking to him on the phone, so he's still just coaching from a distance, I guess you could say. But everyone's positive, everybody's excited about the game."

Were this Game Four instead of 24, the collective atmosphere in the Muma Center might be more chaotic than composed. USF's roster, after all, features only two seniors. Eight players weren't in the program this time last year.

But at this stage, the Bulls know the drill -- even when their coach isn't watching -- and the foe.

"They absolutely do," Woods-Baxter said. "Our big thing in practice is just keeping them motivated and doing what Jose's been doing the whole time."

UConn, barely challenged all season, sank 10 first-half 3-pointers (and 14 total) in the teams' first meeting, an 81-53 Huskies triumph on Jan. 26. National player of the year candidate Breanna Stewart scored 29.

And while the Bulls finished with a 28-14 advantage in paint scoring, UConn finished with more steals (six) than turnovers (five).

"Even Coach Fernandez mentioned it," senior Inga Orekhova recalled. "He was like, 'They shot over 50 percent from (3-point range) so nobody could've beaten them that night.'"

Many question whether this Huskies team can be defeated by anyone on any night. Entering this weekend, some even might have suggested an earthquake would strike the Deep South before this UConn team would be challenged.

If his team does force a seismic shift in women's basketball's world order Sunday, Fernandez wants a courtside seat.

"I think we'll come in, especially because we're so young and sometimes young players are sort of naive; they just want to go out and play, it doesn't matter who we're playing," Woods-Baxter said.

"And I truly believe they think like that, that we can play with anybody. So they'll go in with that mentality."

[Last modified: Saturday, February 15, 2014 12:46pm]

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