Make us your home page
Instagram

Get the quickest, smartest news, analysis and photos from the Bucs game emailed to you shortly after the final whistle.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Even during a trying season, USF women meet NCAA tourney expectations

TAMPA — Moments after seeing his team's name appear Monday evening on the NCAA women's bracket, Jose Fernandez perched himself on a stool in front of the watch-party audience of about 150 and chirped two sentences of gratification.

"How 'bout that for a rebuilding year," USF's veteran coach said into his microphone. "Pretty good, huh?"

The crowd responded with whoops and cheers of affirmation, which was all the adulation Fernandez afforded himself. Minutes later, he was sequestered in his Muma Center offices with his staff, studying tape of first-round foe Missouri.

But the message he packed into those nine words lingered: Few were banking on Bulls bracketology or watch parties this season.

Few, that is, except Fernandez and his team.

Despite the departure of four starters and a litany of significant injuries, the Bulls (24-8) earned their third consecutive NCAA berth. In ensuing months, perhaps when he's tossing a line in the gulf or raising a glass with his wife, Tonya, this is what Fernandez will allow himself to celebrate.

His program finally is sustaining itself. After 17 years of toil, trial and error; after watching his contract run out twice before being offered an extension; after burst bubbles and WNIT bracketology; Fernandez has built his brand to the point where March Madness now is an expectation, not an aberration.

"And I think ultimately that's been his goal, to build a program that can sustain," Bulls 12th-year assistant Jeff Osterman said. "This was the year, quite honest, we were all nervous about sustaining."

Fernandez and Co. had to replace three starters from last season's 24-10 club, including all-time rebounding leader Alisia Jenkins and No. 2 career scorer Courtney Williams, selected eighth overall in the 2016 WNBA draft.

A fourth starter, junior Laura Ferreira, has missed nearly the entire season with plantar fasciitis. The losses forced Fernandez to significantly alter USF's style of play and convert one-time role players into significant contributors.

The Bulls don't press, ever. Premiums are placed on maximizing offensive possessions, avoiding foul trouble and getting to the free-throw line. Offense is created via ball distribution, floor spacing and screens. Whereas Jenkins was a rebounding force of nature, the Bulls attack the glass by committee.

The 394 fouls they've committed are fifth-fewest in the nation, and they're tied for 33rd in the country in rebounds per game (41.8).

Six-foot sophomore Kitija Laksa (19.2 ppg) is the top scoring threat, but three fellow Europeans — point guard Laia Flores (8.6 ppg, 6.0 assists), shooting guard Ari Pujol (12.2 ppg) and forward Maria Jespersen (14.8 ppg, 8.8 rpg) — have stepped up dramatically.

None averaged more than 5.9 points last season.

"Courtney Williams is probably the best player ever in USF's history, and she was getting a lot of balls, so (Fernandez) had to change the style," said Flores, a native of Spain who has been playing with a nagging right-ankle injury more than a month.

"I feel like we play more of a European style."

Therein lies Fernandez's validation: While the style has changed, the success hasn't.

This is USF's fourth consecutive 20-win season.

"Sometimes you can't sustain a couple of injuries," Fernandez said. "But when you can start sustaining injuries that are gonna happen … you can sustain graduation, you have a program. And I think that's one thing I'm pleased with."

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

No. 11 seed USF vs. No. 6 Missouri

Stockton (Calif.) Region opener, 5:15 tonight, Tucker Center, Tallahassee. TV/radio: ESPN2; 1040-AM

Even during a trying season, USF women meet NCAA tourney expectations 03/16/17 [Last modified: Thursday, March 16, 2017 7:26pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Rays at Orioles, 1:35 p.m. Sunday, Baltimore

    The Heater

    Today: at Orioles

    1:35, Camden Yards, Baltimore

    TV/radio: Fox Sports Sun, 1250-AM, 760-AM (Spanish)

  2. Rays Tales: Who's the team MVP? It's a vexing proposition

    The Heater

    Given that the Rays' season is — barring a much bigger story — going to end next Sunday, this is the time to reflect on what they did over the past six months — honor the good, acknowledge the bad and note some of the more interesting.

    Typically, that starts with the MVP.

    Corey Dickerson, left, and Steven Souza Jr. typify the conundrum: some good, some not so good.
  3. Lightning journal: Ryan Callahan feels good after first game action since January

    Sports

    TAMPA — As veteran RW Ryan Callahan was riding a stationary bike before Friday's exhibition game, he felt nervous. There was anxiety.

    Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Ryan Callahan (24) pursues Nashville Predators center Colton Sissons (10) during the first period of Friday (9/22/17) preseason game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Nashville Predators at Amalie Arena in Tampa.
  4. FSU players rally around freshman QB James Blackman

    College

    TALLAHASSEE — For the first few minutes Saturday, Florida State's James Blackman looked like a true freshman making his first start at quarterback for a big-time program.

    Florida State Seminoles quarterback James Blackman (1) gets sacked during the first quarter of the Florida State Seminoles game against the North Carolina State Wolfpack on September 23, 2017, at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Fla.  Final score, North Carolina State Wolfpack 27, Florida State Seminoles 21.
  5. No. 12 FSU, defense struggle in 27-21 loss to N.C. State

    College

    TALLAHASSEE — It's easy to blame No. 12 Florida State's 27-21 loss to North Carolina State on the injury to starting quarterback Deondre Francois or the three-week layoff because of Hurricane Irma.

    It would also be wrong.

    Florida State Seminoles wide receiver Nyqwan Murray (8) carries during the first quarter of the Florida State Seminoles game against the North Carolina State Wolfpack on September 23, 2017, at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Fla.  At the half, North Carolina State Wolfpack 17, Florida State Seminoles 10.