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Rehabbed and reloaded, USF women seek NCAA return

The Bulls, coming off a snake-bitten season, appear three-deep at every position.
USF guard Enna Pehadzic (0) drives to the basket past UCF forward Tolulope Omokore (25) during a game at the Yuengling Center on Jan. 8. [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]
USF guard Enna Pehadzic (0) drives to the basket past UCF forward Tolulope Omokore (25) during a game at the Yuengling Center on Jan. 8. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Oct. 31, 2019

TAMPA ― During the most challenging winter of his professional life, when four-fifths of his starting lineup was on the shelf and freshmen were logging 40 minutes a night, Jose Fernandez pressed on the only way he knew how.

By transforming the whole crazy, cursed season into a tutorial on life.

“In the real world, hey, you got a job, you’ve got to wake up whether you feel good or whether you don’t feel good,” said USF’s veteran women’s coach, who lost three opening-night starters to season-ending injuries or health issues by early January.

“I think there were more life lessons taken from last year that will prepare that group for life after basketball and beyond.”

MORE BULLS: Second-half surge lifts USF past Saint Leo in exhibition

While those lessons were being administered, a presumably forlorn season became an inspirational one. Fernandez’s assemblage of rookies and reserves won five of seven in February, earned a WNIT berth and finished 19-16.

“They were ready when the opportunity came,” Fernandez said.

But with all due respect to teachable moments, the 2019-20 club is more concerned with shining ones, maybe some redemptive ones. Healthy and replenished with another influx of European talent, the Bulls appear equipped for a memorable March run. Presuming they can avoid another injury epidemic.

“This is as balanced a team as we’ve ever had,” said Fernandez, entering this 20th season.

“I think this team’s more built for having four or five guys in double figures and 10 guys contributing night-in and night-out.”

Entering Tuesday’s season opener against Jacksonville (the complete schedule can be found here), the Bulls appear three-deep at every spot. During a recent closed scrimmage against Stetson, 11 players were used in one quarter. In another closed session against Miami (won by USF), 10 Bulls played at least 10 minutes.

“We have all kinds of different threats on the floor now,” said 6-foot-1 forward Tamara Henshaw, the only senior (and Florida native) on the team. “And we’re deep.”

The rotation includes a handful of returners thrown into the figurative fire last season.

Sophomore point guard Elise Pinzan, who never came off the floor in five games down the stretch, will be complemented by 5-foot-6 Croatian Mihaela Lazic, who played in the 2017 and ’18 FIBA European Championships. Sophomore Sydni Harvey, last year’s opening-night starter, still is rehabbing from offseason surgery.

Junior wing Enna Pehadzic, who went from averaging 2.5 minutes as a freshman to 36.3 last season, will be pushed by a pair of freshman 3-point sharpshooters: Maria Alvarez, who led Miami Country Day to six state titles, and 6-footer Kristyna Brabencova, MVP of the Czech Republic’s under-19 team.

Down low, 6-foot-3 sophomore Beatriz Jordao, who flourished in 11 games (11.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg) before being shelved with a leg injury, returns. Six-footer Bethy Mununga, a two-time juco All-American who averaged a double-double both years at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College, joins the mix.

The rotation becomes even more formidable if 5-foot-8 Greece national teamer Elena Tsineke, who possesses arguably the greatest upside of all the newcomers, receives an NCAA waiver allowing her to play immediately.

“I feel like everybody’s gonna have a night, it just depends on who steps up,” Pehadzic said. “And that’s the good thing about this team; it’s gonna make it a lot easier for each of us because…teams don’t have to worry about one person, they have to worry about all five players playing right now.”

MORE BULLS: Four reasons USF still can reach a bowl game

If the talent doesn’t immediately translate to a hearty win percentage, it stands to reason. In accordance with his custom, Fernandez put together a daunting non-conference schedule to season the Bulls for American Athletic Conference play.

USF, which received a handful of votes in the Associated Press preseason poll, faces four top-16 teams ― including reigning national champ Baylor and national runner-up Notre Dame ― before Christmas.

But by January, the team that previously was subject to some hard lessons hopes to inflict a few.

“Those guys in that locker room remember what went on in January and February,” Fernandez said. “So we’ll see when that time comes.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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