As injuries mount, USF women remain resolute

Since June, the Bulls have lost three significant players to season-ending injuries.
USF women's coach Jose Fernandez (center) is down to 10 healthy scholarship players for the remainder of the season. [Times files]
USF women's coach Jose Fernandez (center) is down to 10 healthy scholarship players for the remainder of the season. [Times files]
Published January 7

TAMPA — When life tosses you lemons, you spit out the seeds and attempt to digest every philosophical platitude they offer.

Jose Fernandez, who has endured a citric deluge in recent months, has no other alternatives at this point. Might as well make this insanely tough stretch a teachable one.

"There are gonna be things that happen in your life that's unexpected, and it's how you deal with it," said USF's 19th-year women's coach, who has lost four significant players since June, three of them to year-ending injuries.

"You've still got to wake up and go to work the next day. I think there's a lot of life lessons that these guys have learned this year, but I'm really proud of how they've attacked every day and every practice, and they continue to prepare and fight."

The fight will go on for USF (10-5, 1-0), despite postseason odds that get leaner the more the injury report gets bloated. Fernandez has 10 healthy scholarship players for USF's 15 remaining American Athletic Conference games and the league tournament.

The latest to go down was promising 6-foot-3 freshman Beatriz Jordao, who was averaging 11.3 points and 5.7 rebounds before a worsening left-leg injury forced her to the shelf last week.

She joined All-America candidate Kitija Laksa (torn ACL) and five-star Spain recruit Silvia Serrat (knee) on the casualty list. Additionally, veteran SG Vanessa Blagmon announced her departure days before the season opener, landing at Old Dominion.

"We keep supporting each other," fifth-year senior SG Laura Ferreira said. "Nobody's getting injured on purpose."

Widely considered the Bulls' resident defensive stopper before the injury outbreak, Ferreira now is being summoned for her offense, and enters Tuesday's 7 p.m. home game against rival UCF as the top scorer (15.8 ppg).

Redshirt sophomore wing Enna Pehadzic, averaging single-digit minutes at the season's outset, logged 35 in Saturday's 63-53 victory at Temple, compensating for a 1-for-14 shooting effort with 13 rebounds.

"We've had to switch so many things around and ask people to play different positions," Fernandez added. "I'm very thankful that we've got a great staff and we've recruited the right people to be in this program to go through what we've gone through."

Yet for all that resolve, the Bulls' quest for a fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament berth gets steeper by the injury.

A viable Sweet 16 candidate in the preseason, USF is no longer ranked. ESPN women's bracketologist Charlie Creme's latest projection doesn't have USF in the 64-team field.

"There are still a lot of games to be played," Fernandez said.

"At the beginning of the year, we were predicted as a Sweet 16 team, top-15, top-20 team. We're just different…and I told 'em before conference play started, how we do in these next 16 games and how we do in the conference tournament will determine the tournament you play in."

With Laksa out, the Bulls lack a steady long-range threat, ranking 77th nationally in 3-point percentage (33.8). Experience on the wing also is a concern.

Moving forward, their identity likely will be forged in the low post, where veterans Alyssa Rader (8.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg) and Tamara Henshaw (5.7 rpg) are complemented by 6-2 sophomore Shae Leverett (6.8 ppg, 6.4 rpg). USF's 45.2 rebounds per game rank 13th nationally.

But they can ill-afford foul trouble on any night, and one more significant injury is likely all that separates USF from catastrophe.

"Do we still have the caliber and the talent on this team to be an NCAA Tournament team? Yes," Fernandez said.

"Again, you know how RPI and strength-of-schedule is. We didn't help ourselves in some of the losses that we had (including a 29-point loss at LSU). We've just got to continue to play one possession at a time and prepare for every game like it's the last one of the season."

Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.