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USF women’s basketball team has history in its sights

Head coach Jose Fernandez thinks his squad is capable of reaching heights the program has never attained before.
USF forward Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu (32) works for positioning against Alabama center Jada Rice during Wednesday's game at Yuengling Center in Tampa. The Bulls won 67-59.
USF forward Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu (32) works for positioning against Alabama center Jada Rice during Wednesday's game at Yuengling Center in Tampa. The Bulls won 67-59. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
Published Nov. 17|Updated Nov. 18

TAMPA — Four games into the season, the unbeaten USF women’s basketball team is looking quick, cool and potentially very special.

The optimism stems from a group of players that has displayed great chemistry in starting 4-0.

Where to begin?

How about with returning 5-foot-7 senior guard Elena Tsineke, who entered the season as the American Athletic Conference preseason player of the year after averaging 14.3 points and earning her 1,000th career point in 2021-22.

USF guard Elena Tsineke (5) protects the ball from Alabama guard Sarah Ashlee Barker (3) during Wednesday's game.
USF guard Elena Tsineke (5) protects the ball from Alabama guard Sarah Ashlee Barker (3) during Wednesday's game. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

Then there is Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu, a 6-4 forward who averaged 10.3 points and 7.1 rebounds last season and has been consistently tough in the paint, averaging 17.8 points and 9.8 rebounds a game this season.

Another bright light is returning guard Aerial Wilson, who played sparingly last season after transferring from Memphis but has stepped up with solid decision-making and ballhandling, averaging five assists and less than two turnovers a game this season.

Then there are the newcomers, including 6-foot-1 junior guard Sammie Puisis, a former McDonald’s All-American who transferred from Florida State, and freshman Carla Brito, a versatile, physical wing from Spain who handles the ball as well as she rebounds.

Puisis, who averaged 5.8 points last season for FSU, has one of the best outside shots the Bulls have seen in some time. Her quick, smooth release lit up visiting Alabama for 24 second-half points Wednesday, part of a game-high 26 points in a 67-59 win.

USF guard Sammie Puisis (3) guards Alabama guard Hannah Barber.
USF guard Sammie Puisis (3) guards Alabama guard Hannah Barber. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

One of the most encouraging things about Puisis’ performance Wednesday was the way she shook off missing five of her six attempts from the field in the first half.

“At halftime we stayed calm,” said Puisis, who is averaging 20 points a game. “We knew our shots weren’t falling (in the first half), but we also knew they were going to start falling.”

Coach Jose Fernandez seems as jazzed about this team as he has been about any team during his 23 seasons coaching the Bulls. That is saying a lot, because Fernandez has had eight NCAA Tournament teams (seven in the past 10 seasons) and 15 victories against top 25-ranked opponents. He twice has won AAC coach of the year honors.

Fernandez said he thinks this team might be capable of making program history.

“We want to get into Week Two of the NCAA Tournament, the Sweet 16, the Elite Eight, contending for the Final Four,” Fernandez said. “That’s where we want to go, to places we’ve never been before.”

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USF point guard Aerial Wilson (22) glances at her coach during Wednesday's game against Alabama.
USF point guard Aerial Wilson (22) glances at her coach during Wednesday's game against Alabama. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

That feels possible especially with sharp-shooting junior guard Maria Alvarez and forward Caitlin McGee, a Mississippi transfer, expected to return soon from injury.

Former McDonald’s All-America guard Priscilla Williams is easing her way back after missing 2021-22 at Syracuse following a head injury suffered during her sophomore season. She has played a few minutes the past few games and shown promise.

“You can’t just jump in there after not playing for an entire year. You have to get in the flow, knock off the rust,” Fernandez said. “(Williams is) coming along.”

On top of all that, USF has four promising international freshmen: 5-11 guard Janette Aarnio (Finland), 5-8 point guard Marina Asensio (Spain), 6-3 forward Emma Johansson (Sweden) and 6-0 forward Daniela Gonzalez (Columbia). All have looked solid.

“We definitely have a lot of talent,” Fernandez said. “There has been healthy competition at most positions, and that’s a good thing.

“Overall, I’m feeling good about this group. If we don’t have injuries and continue to work hard, we could end up doing something special. I really do believe that.”

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