TAMPA — Inga Orekhova feels as if she was born to play basketball.
Growing up in Austria as her parents played professionally, the Ukraine-born USF junior forward was immersed in the sport from an early age.
"I never had a choice to play anything else. I was always in the gym with them," said Orekhova, preparing for today's game with No. 3 Connecticut. "It was playing basketball and watching their games. Overseas, I was always shooting. My dad and my mom always said, 'You've got to shoot.' It came naturally."
Though much of the spotlight for USF this season has been on its leading scorers, senior twins Andrea and Andrell Smith, Orekhova is its third-leading scorer. The 6-foot-2 sharpshooter with a quick release averages 12.4 points per game and is tied for fifth in the Big East in 3-pointers (34 in 14 league games) and third in free-throw percentage (88.6 percent).
Facing the Huskies, the Bulls need a big day from Orekhova, who remembers how close USF was to beating UConn on the road last season. The Bulls trailed by one early in the second half before UConn pulled away to win 77-62. USF beat two ranked teams in four days last week, giving it confidence against one of the nation's best.
"For us to be successful, I think you have to shoot a good number from all aspects: from the floor, from the 3-point line, from the free-throw line," USF coach Jose Fernandez said.
Orekhova's path to USF was a long, winding one. She moved to San Diego when she was 17, played two years of high school ball there and became one of the nation's top recruits.
She signed with Northwestern but wasn't admitted. She then was slated to play at USC but wound up at a small junior college in Oklahoma, where USF coaches spotted her. They sold her on Tampa's weather being like San Diego's, beating out Oklahoma to sign her.
Orekhova sat out the first half of last season as mandated by the NCAA after she played parts of two seasons with her mother on an Austrian team coached by her father. Fernandez was once worried about her leaving early to play overseas, but she has committed to returning for her senior year and is on schedule to graduate in December. She speaks fluent Russian, German and English, and took five years of French in school.
Orekhova has her idiosyncrasies. She microwaves her breakfast — cereal, milk and all — because she doesn't like it crunchy. And Andrea Smith said she's addicted to Southern cooking, which she gets on trips to the Smiths' home in Lakeland.
"She likes the home-cooked soul food: ribs, chicken, greens. Oh my goodness, she loves that kind of food," Andrea said. "My parents cook a lot, and she takes, like, four to-go plates. She can eat. And she loves chocolate cake. You look at her. You can't tell a thing, but she loves to eat."
Fernandez knows he has an elite scorer in Orekhova, one who will carry a greater part of the offense next season when the twins are gone. In the meantime, he wants to see the rest of her game be as strong as her shot.
"If we can just get her to guard somebody," Fernandez said. "I tell (USF all-time leading scorer) Jessica Dickson, 'I found a worse defender than you.' Great kid, fun to coach. Really understands the game, has really good court vision. If we can get her to contain the dribble and defend better, she can be a very, very good basketball player."
Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected]