TAMPA ― His injury-ravaged team’s NCAA Tournament bubble was pretty much punctured before the Super Bowl.
His chances for a seventh consecutive 20-win season have regressed from modest to remote. So far, his club has one win against a current top-50 RPI team. In three recent games, only one of his five opening-night starters was healthy enough to even suit up.
“We have such a small room for error,” veteran USF women’s coach Jose Fernandez said, “just because of the makeup of our team.”
Ah, his club’s makeup. Don’t get Fernandez going; he’s liable to well up.
The Bulls will enter Monday night’s home finale against Connecticut with nine available players, at varying degrees of healthiness. But their collective reservoir of fortitude appears as deep as their bench is shallow.
In a season when an improbable succession of injuries has depleted their roster, the Bulls (16-13, 7-8 AAC) have forged onward with guile and grit.
Rebounding, the team attribute least affected by the injuries, has become an obsession. Free-throw opportunities have been maximized, excuses minimized. Rookies have stepped up, encouraged by the sidelined veterans.
That recent three-game stretch, when Fernandez had one opening-night starter (forward Alyssa Rader) available? USF won all three. Five losses have been by three or fewer points. Even in this, the most snake-bitten of his 19 seasons at USF, Fernandez’s club is a handful of possessions from having 20 wins already.
For that, his peers should select him American Athletic Conference Coach of the Year.
“I think he and his staff have done an amazing job,” said veteran broadcaster/analyst Leah Secondo, who calls games for ESPN and CBS Sports Network, and has worked three Bulls contests this season.
"He's certainly lost a few more hairs over (this season)...but he and his staff, they are very patient with these guys."
At times, patience was seemingly all Fernandez and his staff had remaining.
The team’s best offensive player, future WNBA draft prospect Kitija Laksa, was lost for the season when she tore her ACL in Game 3. The best defensive player, fifth-year senior Laura Ferreira, played in one conference game before being shut down with what the school has called an “unspecified illness.”
In between, the school announced 6-foot-3 Portugal native Beatriz Jordao, the crown jewel of Fernandez’s 2019 recruiting class, would miss the rest of the season due to a left leg injury.
That left Fernandez with two healthy opening night starters ― Rader and freshman point guard Sydni Harvey ― for all of January, February and March.
Rader missed five AAC games while in concussion protocol, and is fighting through other lower-body issues. Harvey recently missed three contests due to concussion protocol. Collectively, the Bulls’ season-opening starting quintet has missed 65 games.
“We’ve had an ACL or an ankle sprain, or somebody misses four or five games, but not to the extent of this,” Fernandez said after an early-January loss to UCF.
“But it’s like I tell our kids, stuff like this prepares you for after USF.”
Those who mistook that philosophical tone for a concessive one have witnessed the extent of both his tenacity and his staff’s recruiting.
In Wednesday night’s 59-49 victory at Houston (a 15-win club), Fernandez started two freshmen and two sophomores. The top scorer, sophomore guard Enna Pehadzic (12 points), is averaging 15.4 points and 6.5 rebounds in conference play. Last season, she totaled 14 points in nine appearances.
Down low, the Bulls finished with a 31-22 advantage in defensive rebounds. Of 6-1 junior Tamara Henshaw’s 15 boards, 13 came on the defensive glass. Behind Henshaw (8.1 rpg) and 6-2 sophomore Shae Leverett (7.9), USF entered the weekend ranked seventh nationally in total rebounds (1,231).
“They’re unbelievable (on the glass),” said Cincinnati coach Michelle Clark-Heard, whose 19-9 team ended the Bulls’ four-game win streak (but was out-rebounded) with a 57-43 triumph Saturday. “They’re still doing a great job of that.”
At the dawn of March, the glass remains the prevailing metaphor for this group, which might ― might ― over-achieve its way into the WNIT. Less than a month ago, the Bulls were .500, with only two wins in their first eight conference games and four-fifths of their regular starting lineup in street clothes.
Instead of regressing, they rebounded. For that, Fernandez warrants conference recognition.
“I think he’s done an incredible job,” Clark-Heard said.
“I think, as everyone knows and has known for a long time, he’s a great coach. He’s gotten those players to jell and mesh together more, and they’re playing really well. Different players are stepping up and that’s what great coaches and great coaching staffs do.”
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.