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USF women's basketball maintains strides despite graduations

TAMPA — This wasn't how logic drew it up. Based on the scoring punch and sturdy rebounding that departed from USF's roster last spring, the Bulls were projected to rebuild, replenish and, dare we say, regress.

Yet through 14 games, what they've done mostly is refute.

"Tradition doesn't rebuild," coach Jose Fernandez said.

If the season's first half is any sign, USF (13-1) is evolving from top-25 upstart to mainstay before its fan base's eyes. Tonight, the nation gets a glimpse of the No. 20 Bulls as they try to keep top-ranked Connecticut (14-0) from earning its 90th straight win, which would tie its own NCAA record (men or women).

Less than 10 months after No. 2 all-time scorer Courtney Williams, career rebounding leader Alisia Jenkins and sleek point guard Shalethia Stringfield exited, the Bulls are scoring more (79.0 ppg to 72.7), rebounding more (45.6 rpg to 42.8) and distributing the ball more efficiently than last year's NCAA second-round team.

Their assist-turnover ratio (plus-1.25) ranks 23rd nationally, and they've committed the third-fewest fouls (12.7 per game) in Division I-A.

"Don't get me wrong, our program wouldn't be where it was if it wasn't for those (departed) kids," Fernandez said.

"But I think it was a thing that … those guys left, and at the end of the day we're still South Florida. And (the current team) wanted to say, 'Hey, how 'bout us. We're here.' "

Williams' departure for the WNBA left Fernandez without a player who could create a basket — often in midair — as the shot clock elapsed. Collective athleticism also suffered a dropoff. As a result, the Bulls don't press and lean more heavily on the 3-pointer, led by reigning American Athletic Conference player of the week Kitija Laksa (21.6 ppg).

Complementing her are 6-foot European veterans Maria Jespersen (14.4 ppg, 9.6 rpg) and Ari Pujol (14.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg), who have evolved from role players to key components after remaining at USF all summer.

But no one has progressed like 5-7 point guard Laia Flores, who transformed her body in the offseason and led the under-20 Spanish national team to the European Championship. Flores' 7.1 assists per game ranks 11th nationally.

WOMEN'S POLL: Kentucky fell out, ending a streak of 132 weeks in the poll. FSU dropped one spot to No. 7. North Carolina State entered at No. 23.

MEN'S POLL: Baylor is No. 1 for the first time. FSU jumped three spots to No. 9, and Florida moved up one to No. 23. No. 24 Minnesota and No. 25 Kansas State entered, and Virginia Tech and Indiana dropped out.

FOOTBALL: Peyton Manning and his SEC nemesis, former Florida coach Steve Spurrier, will go into the College Football Hall of Fame together. The class of 13 players and coaches includes USC Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart, San Diego State running back Marshall Faulk and Danny Ford, who coached Clemson to a national championship. … North Carolina junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky is entering the NFL draft, where he is projected as a potential first-round pick. … Ohio State All-American receiver-running back Curtis Samuel is giving up his final year of eligibility to enter the NFL draft.

SOCCER: Wake Forest midfielder Ian Harkes won the Hermann Trophy as the top male player in the United States. West Virginia defender Kadeisha Buchanan was the top woman.

Information from Times wires was used in this report. Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

Women's basketball

No. 1 Connecticut (14-0, 2-0 American Athletic Conference) vs. No. 20 USF (13-1, 2-0)

7 tonight, XL Center, Hartford, Conn.

TV: CBS Sports Network

USF women's basketball maintains strides despite graduations 01/09/17 [Last modified: Monday, January 9, 2017 8:29pm]
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