In the fourth quarter of a blowout against Alabama State on Dec. 6, Elisa Pinzan went down with an ankle injury — her second severe injury in as many seasons.
The Bulls’ starting point guard didn’t return until Jan. 12, coming off the bench to play 32 minutes against Tulsa.
“Coach [Jose Fernandez] was like, ‘OK, I will give you some minutes, but I don’t want you to play that much. It’s the first game,’” Pinzan said. “But then ,it’s different when you get on the court and you see that he needs you, your teammates need you.
“It’s always like, ‘I got it. I want to do that. I know that I’m not 100 percent healthy, but I want to do that. I want to get the win for everyone.’”
It’s not like that was the first challenge the sophomore from Murano, Italy, faced in her time at USF.
Murano, a series of islands in the Venetian Lagoon less than a mile from Venice, is quite the stark contrast to Tampa.
“It’s completely different from here,” Pinzan said. “You don’t have cars, you travel with boats. It’s a different style of life.”
That said, it wasn’t difficult to get her to come, according to Fernandez.
“It wasn’t a hard pitch,” Fernandez said. “We’ve had a lot of success here and had success with a lot of high-level international guys. She was familiar with our program — and Tampa’s not a hard sell.”
Tampa may not have been a hard sell, but Pinzan was far from an expert.
“I just knew that it was hot,” Pinzan said. “So that’s why I was like, ‘OK, I will come.’ But I didn’t really know anything about here.”
It’s not just the city that’s different. USF, compared with universities in Europe, is gargantuan.
“My first day of school, I was really scared,” Pinzan said. “I didn’t know where to go, because the universities in Italy and in Europe — it’s completely different. It’s a small building or you have two, three buildings at maximum. Here you have to walk around and you see like 20 buildings with 100 classes inside. I’m like, ‘Oh, gosh, I don’t know where to go.’
“At the end, if you think about it, it’s really, really cool because it’s completely different from — everything is completely huge compared to home.”
Pinzan eventually found her way around with GPS and an app on her phone.
But there was still the issue of the language barrier.
“It was really bad,” Pinzan said. “When we take [English] class in Italy in high school, the teacher usually doesn’t speak English. … So you don’t even get used to listening to other people talking in English.
“My first month, I was really quiet. I didn’t know what to say and I didn’t even know how to say it.”
Pinzan’s English improved after a few months of studying, and now says she doesn’t even need to translate something to Italian before understanding it.
The international flair of her teammates also aided in the process, because so many of them made the move to a foreign land to play for the Bulls as well.
“It’s funny, sometimes when we don’t know certain words in English,” Pinzan said, “I say it in Italian, and there’s Kris [Kristyna Brabencova] and Silvia [Serrat], they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I got this word,’ because it’s similar in Spanish [for Serrat] and then it’s similar in Czech Republic too [for Brabencova].
“It helped me a lot in the beginning, because I didn’t know the culture here. In Europe, it’s kind of all the same, so it’s really helped me with all of them around.”
As time went on last season and Pinzan adjusted to life stateside, she became a leader on the floor. She put up a career-high eight assists and seven rebounds against Tulane on March 8, 2019, and scored a career-high 23 points in the first round of the WNIT against Stetson on March 21.
This season, even though she missed more than a month, Pinzan leads the team in minutes, assists, steals and is third in scoring. She’s played at least 30 minutes in every game since coming back, including the full 40 in three.
“I think maturity,” Fernandez said about Pinzan’s growth since last season. “Playing through soreness, playing through pain … the grind of how much time you’ve got to invest and put in, I think she’s grown a lot in that, making herself better and investing in her game.”
Pinzan overcame the challenge of adjusting to a completely different environment — city, school and language — with a little help from her friends. Bouncing back from her second injury was a similar process.
“After the injury, at the beginning, I was scared,” Pinzan said. “But now I’m feeling pretty confident, and I’m happy I’m playing. The team is giving me confidence, the coaches are giving me confidence — they’re trusting me. That’s made my game easier, too — when you have people around that cheer for you.”