Women's hoops: Rugged December leads to resurgent January
For a team so talented, yet so young and discombobulated, Jose Fernandez knew exactly what to give it for the holidays.
No holiday at all.
In a sense, the recent winter break may have been the longest in the lives of USF's women players. For one nine-day stretch between games around Thanksgiving (Nov. 25-Dec. 3), and subsequent five- and six-day spans between contests in December, the Bulls' practice floor was as bustling as a Wal-Mart on Black Friday.
"We had Christmas break, we had a lot of time to practice," 6-foot-4 senior Akila McDonald said.
Practice they did. Fernandez held two-a-days, even three-a-days. Fundamentals were refined, defensive techniques reviewed. Teaching days supplanted shopping days; Fernandez explained in detail what he wanted in transition, in half-court sets.
"That break was huge, it was huge for us," Fernandez said.
January can attest.
Tuesday night's 57-48 victory against Cincinnati was USF's fifth in sixth games, moving the Bulls (10-8, 5-2) into momentary sole possession of third place in the American Athletic Conference. At last, USF is fulfilling the potential that prompted league coaches to rank it third in the American preseason poll.
"We've taken some (losses), but it's not like we weren't confident in ourselves," said McDonald, whose team dropped four in a row prior to their recent surge.
"Sometimes we weren't as efficient with closing games out as we are now, and we've worked on that. With coach over the break, we just really worked on ourselves and I think it's built more confidence."
For all the Bulls' early-season hype, one senses Fernandez knew his team really wouldn't evolve until it got those in-season stretches of practice. His roster features 11 freshmen and sophomores (not counting one third-year sophomore) who needed more than a conventional preseason to jell as a team.
"You're getting freshman kids that haven't been taught at the high school level, haven't been taught at the AAU level, because all they do is play games," Fernandez said.
"There's a small percentage of high school coaches that do a great job teaching. ... So when we get 'em, we have a short amount of time to work with them in the summer with that new (NCAA) rule, and there's so many different things for them to pick up."
While maximizing his practice time, Fernandez also had to juggle his roster. Four guards have missed time due to various injuries, resulting in six different starting lineups in 18 games.
But the starters du jour -- and those who come off the bench -- now collectively seem to understand their roles and Fernandez's system more clearly.
Sophomore guard Courtney Williams (14.9 ppg) is evolving into a defensive stopper as well as an offensive catalyst. McDonald, foul-prone at times, had 10 points, six rebounds and no fouls in 31 minutes against Cincinnati. And the committee of point guards has totaled only five turnovers the last two games.
"One thing you can bank on our team, us playing hard every night," Fernandez said. "And this team has continued to work and develop, and I'm proud of them for that."