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Troubles strengthen USF senior's resolve

Published Sep. 4, 2005

Aiya Shepard came from Palestine, Texas, to join the South Florida women's basketball program in the fall of 1999. It just seems like a generation ago.

After averaging 11.7 points her freshman season on a 13-16 team, the program was doused in controversy. In August 2000, the first of 12 racial discrimination lawsuits was brought against coach Jerry Ann Winters, leading to Winters' firing and athletic director Paul Griffin's resignation. The new coach, Jose Fernandez, recently had been hired as an assistant. The team went 4-24 in 2000-01.

It was a turbulent indoctrination to college.

"It was really hard during (the bad times)," Shepard said. "But I like it here so much, and that was the reason I really wanted to stay. I knew eventually things would get better."

She stayed through the troubled times and emerged unscathed.

"Aiya has been the one constant through everything here," Fernandez said.

Shepard's reward: a potentially prosperous senior season.

"I didn't think we would get this good this fast, but I'm glad we are because this is my last year," Shepard said. "The record for wins here is 16 (in 1977-78), but we're going for a lot more than that, and we want to get into postseason play. I honestly think we can be (among) the top teams (in Conference USA)."

Shepard, a slashing 5-foot-6 shooting guard, is the leader of what could be the best team in school history. USF, which played a weak nonconference schedule last season, was 14-13, 4-10 in Conference USA.

For the past two years, Fernandez has been recruiting higher-caliber players than Winters did. A second straight quality freshman class, along with 6-5 Florida transfer Jameelah Trimble, has USF optimistic.

"We have a post presence, Jameelah, and they're going to have to respect her and double her," Shepard said. "That leaves our perimeter open, and we'll be able to do more things with the ball."

Fernandez's philosophy _ playing up-tempo games, applying full-court pressure and encouraging 3-point shots _ was compromised last season by the Bulls' shallow roster and injuries. Shepard was among those.

After averaging a team-high 17.9 points as a sophomore, she was off to a good start in a more balanced offense but sprained an ankle and then a knee ligament. In the final seven games, she missed two and played less than half of the other five. Despite having six games of 20 or more points, her average fell to 12.0.

But Shepard is healthy again. Though modest in stature, she is quick, attacks the basket and frequently gets to the free-throw line.

"I like to go to the hoop," Shepard said. "I don't care if I get knocked out of the gym. I thrive off contact. It gets me pumped up. Even though I'm small, I can't be afraid to go in there. I might get blocked, but I'm coming right back."

She has a knack for getting off her shot against bigger opponents and making off-balance shots after contact, like her favorite player, Allen Iverson.

"He takes it to the hoop and he's little too," Shepard said. "We've got a lot in common."

Shepard and the Bulls will test themselves against some of the nation's best. Fernandez thinks USF is ready to challenge the C-USA elite, and he wants his team battle-hardened. There are several marquee nonconference games, the biggest Dec. 28 against Connecticut at the Sun Dome.

UConn is the defending national champion and perhaps the nation's top program. It will be the highest-profile game in USF history.

"We're really excited," Shepard said. "We're going to get some national recognition for playing Connecticut. I know they won the national tournament last season, but any team can be beaten.

"We're ready to kick some butt."