Saturday, April 21, 2018
Sports

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 [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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