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South Florida relaxes into winning record

Gazing at her teammates on the University of South Florida women's basketball team as they sat in a circle stretching, Tammy Van Oppen struggled for a way to describe how their attitudes have changed since last year.

Then, suddenly, one of the players popped up and turned a serious pre-practice ritual into a game of duck-duck-goose.

"There," Van Oppen said, "we never would have done that last year."

It's not the children's game that has the Bulls, 13-11 with two games left in the regular season, poised for their first winning record in six years. It's just knowing it's okay to play. Okay to play their best for a coach who, before now, frowned on frivolity and never seemed satisfied.

"They still know basketball is my passion," said Trudi Lacey, who came to USF six years ago accustomed to success. "And they know I love to win above all else. But it's just a calmer approach, that as long as we play hard, everything is going to be okay.

"Before, if we had been 13-11 I would have been saying "Dang it, we should be 18-and-something,' instead of saying, "At least we're 13-11 and won six conference games.' We're trying to live in the moment and not talk about games we could have won and not think about two weeks from now, because we can't control that.

"I'm telling them to relax, that they're trying too hard _ and I can't believe that's coming out of my mouth. I'm almost telling them to try less, because when you try too hard, you screw up."

The Bulls are doing little of that this year.

USF, which did not win a Metro Conference game last year, is 6-4 in the league and could be seeded as high as second in the tournament March 8-11 in Biloxi, Miss.

The Bulls are one of only two teams this season to beat Metro leader and No.

19 ranked Southern Mississippi. (No.

22 Florida is the other). And USF is 5-4 against ranked teams and teams that are getting or have received votes.

All that is leading to whispered talk about a possible NCAA Tournament bid for a program that has had only one winning season in the past 15 years.

"I would say it's finally starting to come together for us," said Lacey, who broke a 10-year string of USF losing seasons in her first with a 14-13 mark in 1988.

"I compare this program to running a marathon. If you start running 5 miles behind everybody else, it takes a while to catch up. "

The Bulls routinely have 6:30 a.m. practices and are continuing a rigorous conditioning program into the season's fatiguing final weeks.

Van Oppen, who staff members feel is a strong candidate for Metro Player of the Year, helped set the pace.

A 6-1 sophomore guard, Van Oppen is the only conference player in the Top 10 in each of nine offensive statistical categories, including an 18.9 scoring average. She was the Metro Freshman of the Year last year with 14.9 points and 7.1 rebounds per game.

But Van Oppen, Illinois' Miss Basketball as a senior at Peoria Limestone High, has done more than produce on the court. She has infected her teammates with a winning attitude.

"It's her sheer desire and love for the game and passion for winning," Lacey said. ". . . She's been able to help the other players see that if we really work hard we can make it happen.

"I'm excited but I want to keep my feet on the ground," Lacey said. "I don't want to go backward. It's like being up by one with six seconds left and getting beat by a shot at the buzzer.

"I'm sure the players are very excited, but our approach as a staff is very subdued. This is what's supposed to happen. We're supposed to win. It shouldn't be surprising. We should expect to win and do well in the tournament. But we are excited because we're so close to reaching some of our goals."

So close to shedding duck feathers for the plumage of swans.

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