Their paths started in different places, but before their Saturday night 72-51 victory against SMU, USF seniors Inga Orekhova and Akila McDonald shared a moment together.
They walked on the court, exchanging laughs and a high-five.
They shared the experience of a WNIT appearance and the team’s second NCAA tournament berth in program history, but Saturday would be their last home game together as Bulls.
“They meant a lot to this program,” USF coach Jose Fernandez said. “I’m going to be happier when they walk across the stage and get their diplomas, but it’s fun to be surrounded by girls that have given a lot every day to this program and have been a pleasure to coach and will be very successful as they leave.”
Their families watched, sitting in the second row of seats along the sideline.
McDonald’s family made matching T-shirts with her picture on them, and her siblings wore her practice and game jerseys. Orekhova’s mother, Svetlana, sat beside them.
The rest of the crowd joined in support of the seniors with a standing ovation at the end. Svetlana said she felt “lucky” to witness that event.
“I saw so many people who take care of my daughter and support her,” she said. ”It is a nice feeling as a mother.”
Inga followed in her mother’s footsteps of playing basketball. Svetlana played for UBBC Herzogenburg in Austria and helped win the Austrian Women’s Basketball League championship in 2006.
McDonald’s mother, Nyree Mims, said she is proud of her daughter’s development as a student athlete and how far she has come.
Mims has seen her daughter play basketball since the age of seven.
“She’s done things I can only imagine,” Mims said. “I was 16 when I had her. I didn’t think she would come this far.”
Both seniors played to their strengths against SMU (16-12, 7-10).
While McDonald, a center, grabbed 10 rebounds in addition to her four points, Orekhova’s three 3-pointers led the Bulls from behind the arc and contributed nine of her 11 points.
After the Bulls jumped to a 24-point lead with six minutes left in the first half, the Mustangs began closing in. By the second media timeout in the second half, the lead shrank to seven.
USF (17-11, 12-5) created an 11-4 run after the timeout with field goals from sophomore forward Alisia Jenkins and guard Courtney Williams. Redshirt sophomore Shalethia Stringfield capped their run with two free throws.
Their offensive effort got the lead back up to double digits for the remainder of play.
Saturday night’s game focused on the seniors, but the sophomores also showed promise for the team’s future.
Wiliams and Jenkins each earned double-doubles. Williams led the scoring effort with 26 points and 13 rebounds, and Jenkins secured her 11th double-double of the season with 16 points and 13 rebounds.
McDonald said she hopes the remaining players continue to hold the tradition of making tournament runs.
“I would just let them know that the NCAA tournament is always our goal every spring and summer,” McDonald said. “Every time the season is done and we are in summer and spring workouts, we are working that hard because we want to be at the NCAA tournament.”
Fernandez said he thinks the team is “in good hands” after this year’s seniors depart.
“I think the spring and summer are going to be big for those (remaining) players to improve,” Fernandez said. “We got some really good pieces and only two seniors and two juniors. It’s my job and the coaching staff’s job to continue to make these guys better. We’ll do that.”
Before Fernandez can work with next year’s team, the Bulls have one more American Athletic Conference (AAC) regular season game tonight in New Jersey against Rutgers. After winning two games at home and on the road, USF is currently tied at third-place with Rutgers.
“I think it’s going to come down to tonight and who gets that third and fourth seed,” Fernandez said. “Whoever wins that game goes to the NCAA tournament.”12