The USF womens basketball team will look to keep hold of its best start in six years with the restart of an in-state rivalry tonight.
USF and Florida Gulf Coast will renew a rivalry that began with two Womens National Invitation Tournament matchups in 2008 and 2009. While the Eagles won the first game during the first round in 2008, the Bulls bounced back in 2009 with a second-round victory.
Tonights matchup will mark the start of a home-and-home series between the two teams, but the Eagles have improved since their WNIT days. Florida Gulf Coast won the Atlantic Sun title last season while going 18-0 in conference play and carried a 21-2 record to a 12th seed in the NCAA Tournament.
This season, the Eagles have stumbled to a 4-3 start, but have played two teams that received votes in Top 25 polls. Playing USF will continue that trend as it received votes in the USA Today Coaches Poll.
I think (FGCU is) very well-coached and Sara Hansen and Brittany Kennedy are two first-team kind of kids in their league, coach Jose Fernandez said. Theyve played a very tough schedule. Theyve played Charlotte, DePaul, South Carolina. This is an NCAA Tournament-type game.
USF will likely rely on its defense against Florida Gulf Coast. In its last two wins, over UNC-Asheville and North Florida, the Bulls forced a combined 67 turnovers including 37 turnovers and 43 points off turnovers in the win over UNC-Asheville.
For the season, the Bulls have held opponents to 50.3 points per game and 31.5 percent shooting from the field, while forcing 24.8 turnovers per game.
I think our defensive package is getting a little broader, Fernandez said. Weve been able to get pressure in different alignments and formations and bring defensive pressure up the sideline. Weve trapped in the half court. I like where were at and I like our depth.
With a road trip to Jacksonville on Saturday night to lead into the final exam break, the Bulls have a chance to go 8-0 before their first big test of the season against No. 22 Nebraska.
Were 6-0 and everyone is happy. In a perfect world thats how you want things, Fernandez said. But were going to be tested this upcoming week against in-state foes, and then we have a very good team in Nebraska coming here after finals break.
While the renewal of a closely-contested albeit short rivalry could be motivation enough, the team is also facing a second chance to pick up a quality win for its NCAA Tournament resume, the first being the 75-73 overtime road game win against Clemson.
I think, at the end of the day, this is the type of game that helps your RPI and helps your schedule, Fernandez said. I expect a nice crowd, an in-state opponent, so its really a good game for both programs.