USF’s Maria Jespersen: double-double, toil and trouble for opposing teams

USF forward Maria Jespersen (12) dribbles into the paint past Memphis guard Taylor Barnes (15) and forward Milena Bajic (44) in a game last season. (Times file)
USF forward Maria Jespersen (12) dribbles into the paint past Memphis guard Taylor Barnes (15) and forward Milena Bajic (44) in a game last season. (Times file)
Published Feb. 9, 2018

TAMPA — Her middle name — Steen — means "stone." In some European countries, it's used for "castle" or "fortress."

Not that USF senior Maria Jespersen possesses such a granite mindset as to swear off her quirky enslavement to ritual. The 6-foot power forward must braid her straight blond hair exactly 85 minutes before tipoff, or else.
Her vibes really become entangled if she's denied her traditional pasta and salmon before any road game. And don't dare conceal Jespersen's precious silver Danish coin, which she wears in her left shoe every contest.

"I don't know if she's the most superstitious, but she's really superstitious, before the game especially," teammate Laura Ferreira said. "She has all the things, step by step, that she has to do."

Fortunately for Jespersen (pronounced YES-persen), the Bulls accommodate all peculiarities, with good reason. When afforded them, the 24-year-old Denmark native generally asserts herself as one of the team's three cornerstones. Or is it corner-steen?

Point guard Laia Flores (six assists per game) is the facilitator. Junior Kitija Laksa (19.4 ppg) the sharpshooter. Jespersen? The resident double-double machine (12 this season).

"The first two years she didn't start for us; she was our first kid off the bench," Bulls coach Jose Fernandez said. "And then last year was her breakout year and it's carried over to this season."

The oldest of the eight European-born players on USF's roster, Jespersen enters Sunday's critical non-conference showdown against No. 13 Ohio State averaging 17.6 points and 9.3 rebounds. A matchup headache because of her shooting range, she has drained the second-most 3-pointers (35) on the team.

Her agility — Jespersen was a point guard and wing in her native country — will be essential against a Buckeyes team that ranks third in Division I-A in scoring (86 ppg) and flourishes in transition.

"I think she's been the type of player that's gotten better every offseason," Fernandez said. "She's been really, really great for us defensively and getting stuff off the glass and being able to create off the dribble. She's been a young lady that's stuck with the process too."

While size came naturally for Jespersen — who has a 6-foot-9 dad, 5-11 mother and three tall brothers —basketball didn't. Raised in Aarhus, Denmark's second-largest city nestled on the east coast of the Jutland peninsula, she participated in everything from piano to tennis to swimming as a prepubescent.

But she hated basketball when she first tried it.

"I was 8," she said. "We didn't even really play. There were two mini-baskets … they were really, really low. And you just had a ball, you had to dribble from one end and like, put it up there. …I couldn't get it in the basket. Then my parents came, and then, I don't know, I just got really (ticked)."

Her impressions changed drastically a couple of years later, when a friend dragged her to a practice and Jespersen found herself suddenly enjoying it. The friend quit the next day.

Jespersen went on to make the Denmark national team, competing internationally at various age levels and winning the scoring title in the Danish Senior League in 2014.

And the "process" of which Fernandez speaks? Gradual but steady.
Jespersen's scoring and rebounding averages have increased each of her four seasons in Tampa. The Bulls' sixth player as a freshman (4.9 ppg, 3.4 rpg) and sophomore (5.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg), when she complemented USF career rebounding leader Alisia Jenkins, Jespersen brandished dominance in glimpses.

As a junior, she displayed it in bunches.

Remaining in Tampa the entire summer prior to that breakthrough season, Jespersen trained six days a week and dropped what she calls "a lot" of weight. She started all 33 games that season, averaging nearly a double-double (14.7 ppg, 9.0 rpg) and earning American Athletic Conference Most Improved Player Honors.

Her 50 3-pointers that year (in 163 attempts) were more than double the total of her first two seasons (22).

"I've been working really hard the last two summers, because I knew that going into my junior year, I would be given this responsibility and I had to be ready to grab my chance," said Jespersen, her Denmark accent still distinct. "And this year, I knew we were returning so many great players, and I knew what we could do."

The Bulls have made no secret their objective is to reach the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, and a win Sunday would make their postseason resume glisten.

Jespersen, part of the team's last three NCAA defeats (by 15 total points), motivates herself by envisioning how grim a double-digit seeding would be.

"Every time in the offseason, I put a goal in my head, and every time (the training) stinks and every time we have to run baselines or something like that, I think  Selection Monday," she said.

Then she envisions playing deep into March, the Sweet 16. For this program, it's the next major stepping stone.

Or steen.

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

USF at Ohio State

Where/when: Sun Dome, Sunday, 2 p.m.

TV/radio: ESPN2; 1040-AM