If there’s any point that can be considered a lull in the college basketball season, the period from mid-December until the New Year is it.
November and early December are the times for crucial nonconference clashes. Then comes January and February when conference rivals butt heads in anticipation of the conference tournaments and the NCAAs in March.
Since our last edition of The Oracle, the USF women’s basketball team has had to go through this dreaded time of year. It started in early December with the Bulls’ big Dodge Shootout matchup against the Florida Gators. The then-No. 20 Gators, like their male counterparts earlier in the day, showed that the Bulls aren’t yet ready to compete at the big time.
Led by 6-foot-4 center Vanessa Hayden’s 30 points, 13 rebounds and eight blocks, the Gators made the Bulls seem like Lilliputians. The game swung quickly in a two-minute span early in the second half during which USF ran off eight straight points, but UF counterpunched like Ali with its own 8-0 run to put the lead back at 16.
With their undefeated streak at an end, the Bulls looked to rebound Dec. 16 at Western Kentucky. While the Bulls didn’t have to deal with All-American center Chris Marcus, who plays for WKU’s men’s team, the Hilltoppers kept their hex over the Bulls alive. The Bulls’ all-time mark against the Hilltoppers now stands at 0-14. My recommendation to USF coach Jose Fernandez: take them off the schedule for next season.
Smarting from two straight losses, the team returned home to face Manhattan Dec. 18. The Jaspers proved to be the antidote to USF’s malaise, as the Bulls posted a 66-58 victory, moving their record to 8-2 on the year.
Rounding out 2001, the Bulls had road trips to three in-state rivals before opening Conference USA play in 2002 against UAB.USF’s lone senior, Dione Smith, enjoyed her return to Tallahassee as the Bulls scored an 89-66 victory against Florida A&M. Four Bulls went into double figures as the Rattlers lost their bite, while the Bulls charged to their ninth win.
However, the next game was the shocker of shockers. Florida Atlantic must have caught the Bulls still drunk on eggnog with visions of sugar plum fairies in their heads Dec. 28 when the Owls upset USF 101-87. No team had scored more than 100 points on USF in more than six seasons, but somehow the 3-6 Owls managed to do it.
Redemption presented itself in the form of Jacksonville Dec. 30, and the Bulls capitalized, registering win No. 10. They seemed shaky to start, but lit up the scoreboard with their three-point shooting to take down the Dolphins 77-72 and reassert a little Sunshine State dominance.
Bethune-Cookman, Florida Atlantic, Miami and Jacksonville – there sure are a lot of teams from Florida on the schedule. My question is where are the Seminoles? We should be playing the ‘Noles but that’s just my opinion, right?
All of which brings us to 2002. What will happen from here is anyone’s guess. I’m no Miss Cleo (my prediction was they’d win 10 games – all season), but after knocking off UAB Sunday, the Bulls (11-3) have a bright future ahead. Whether that future is this year or next will be determined by injuries like the stress fractures to Jen Kline and Sarah Lochmann, and the scoring of Sonia Cotton and Aiya Shepard remains to be seen.
Coach Fernandez’s new kids on the block still have to contend with C-USA bullies Tulane and Cincinnati who’ll be looking to derail USF’s postseason hopes. But the Bulls are right in the thick of things come the new year, and we all know that’s when college basketball starts to get interesting again.