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USF women set for emotional senior night

Bulls seniors Laia Flores and Maria Jespersen will become the first class to lead USF to four NCAA Tournaments.
USF guard Laia Flores (22) drives down court after a steal while teammates Maria Jespersen (12) and Ari Pujol (11) trail behind during the Bulls' game against Louisville at the Sun Dome on January 22, 2017 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Travis Pendergrass)
Published Feb. 23, 2018

In nearly two decades as USF women's basketball coach, Jose Fernandez mostly has excelled in bawl control, especially during poignant moments such as senior night.

But he acknowledges he may check his stoicism at the Sun Dome entrance Saturday, when Laia Flores and Maria Jespersen will be honored before the Bulls' 5 p.m. regular-season home finale against Cincinnati.

"Let me tell you right now, it's gonna be tough for me," Fernandez said. "I have never been emotional at a senior night, and I've had some really good players, but I think it's more about how these kids have persevered."

Despite arriving in the United States at the height of the transfer era, Flores (a Spain native) and Jespersen (Denmark) stayed put even after playing limited roles as freshmen and sophomores.

Since then, they've exploded. With the 18th-ranked Bulls an NCAA Tournament lock, they'll become the first class to lead USF to four NCAA berths. With two more victories, they'll also become the first class in the program's 46 seasons to record 100 wins.

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

"Now in today's society, you've got a lot of kids (that) if they don't play their freshman or sophomore year, they transfer," Fernandez said. "Well, these two kids didn't do that. They stayed the course, they believed in the culture."

Jespersen, a 6-foot forward who didn't average more than six points or 4.5 rebounds in either of her first two years, stayed in Tampa the summer between her sophomore and junior seasons. The result was a breakthrough 2016-17 campaign, when she was named the American Athletic Conference's Most Improved Player (14.7 ppg, 9.0 rpg).

This season, she already has tallied 16 double-doubles, and is averaging nearly a double-double (18.2 ppg, 9.7 rpg) entering Saturday's game.

Flores, who totaled 109 points and 102 assists her first two seasons, similarly took a quantum stride as a junior. She averaged more than six assists last season, playing through torn ligaments in her right ankle over the final month because she was the team's only "healthy" point guard.

RELATED: USF women's basketball team leaving painful memories behind

"The pain that she went through, we don't get to the NCAA Tournament without her," Fernandez said.

This year, she ranks fourth nationally in assist-turnover ratio (plus-3.71) and 20th in assists per game (AAC-best 6.2) while averaging more than 35 minutes. She has played every minute in each of the Bulls' last four contests.

"They didn't take the easy way out, and the easy way out is to run away from a challenge and blame it on the head coach for not playing me, pointing fingers," Fernandez said. "These guys, you know what they did? The invested sweat equity, they got in the gym, they got better."

In the process, they drove the program to an unprecedented level.

Saturday, they might drive their coach to tears.

"It's special," Fernandez said.