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USF women's basketball team leaving painful memories behind

USF guard Laia Flores (22) looks to dribble past Memphis Tigers guard Breigha Wilder-Cochran (1) in the first half during the game between the South Florida Bulls and the Memphis Tigers at the USF Sun Dome in Tampa on Jan. 17, 2017. (Times)
Published Nov. 7, 2017

TAMPA — Long before her team's season ended on a buzzer beater in the NCAA Tournament's opening round against Missouri, Laia Flores had become an authority on excruciation.

Technically, she was the only healthy point guard on USF's roster, which is to say, the only one not confined to a knee brace. Flores tore ligaments in her right ankle in the opening minutes of a Feb. 5 loss at Memphis but chose to trudge onward, subsisting on tape jobs and tenacity.

In that 66-64 loss to Missouri, she was among three Bulls — bereft of depth at that point — to play all 40 minutes.

"It was really hurting me," said Flores, who played in all 33 games and averaged a team-high 36.8 minutes. "I'm not gonna lie now that it's over."

No one epitomized the Bulls' 2016-17 plight more than Flores, one of four players to average more than 35 minutes. The team's most versatile player (wing Laura Ferreira) was limited to nine games by plantar fascia issues, and the most heralded freshman (Denmark national teamer Enna Pehadzic) had to redshirt due to knee surgery.

The grind of a 4?1/2-month season further decimated the roster. USF used only six players against Missouri.

"I mean, we stumbled," coach Jose Fernandez said. "Last year's team won 24 games, but we were hurting."

These days, the hurt has been supplanted by hype. Once Pehadzic returns (perhaps in another week) and 6-foot-2 Northern Arizona transfer Alyssa Rader becomes eligible in early December, Fernandez could have the deepest team of his 18 seasons.

And maybe even his best.

"We're gonna play about nine guys," said Fernandez, whose club was ranked 23rd in the Associated Press preseason poll. "There are gonna be three guys on this team that are very talented that are not gonna play. It's just the nature of where this program's at."

Six of the top eight scorers return, led by first-team All-American Athletic Conference picks Kitija Laksa (19.2 ppg) and Maria Jespersen (14.7 ppg, 9 rpg), and 6-1 freshman of the year Tamara Henshaw (7 ppg, 6.8 rpg).

Flores (6.1 assists), who needed no surgery, now is backed by fellow Spain native Alba Prieto, a scoring/distributing dynamo for Spain's under-18 national team. Ferreira, meantime, says she feels like her sophomore self, which averaged 9.6 points and might have been the Bulls' best perimeter defender.

"She's just a great addition to what we already have," Jespersen said.

The stated objective now is to scale the NCAA bracket instead of stubbing its toe on it. USF never has escaped the tournament's opening weekend in five career appearances. Fernandez speaks as if anything less would be a failure.

An excruciating one.

"Seventeen percent of teams that play Division I basketball play in the NCAA Tournament, so that means only about 7-8 percent move to the second weekend out of the 350 schools," Fernandez said. "So a lot of people don't understand how difficult that is.

"But that's where our program's at."

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

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