The USF women’s basketball team got back to basketball this season, and the results showed it.
Mired in the Jerry Ann Winters’ racial discrimination allegations in 2000-01, the Bulls limped to a 4-24 finish in coach Jose Fernandez’s first year on the job. While the Winters case is still pending, the Bulls managed to devote most of their focus on the court, and their record benefited greatly. USF surged 10 games in the win column behind five newcomers, though the Bulls fell short of the 14-game improvement Fernandez had set his sights on in the preseason.
“I’m not disappointed one bit,” Fernandez said. “We lost some close games, and I attribute that to a lack of experience. But I don’t think a lot of people would have picked us to win 14 games.”
In fact, the Conference USA coaches tabbed USF as the league’s worst team in their preseason poll. The Bulls responded by posting the program’s fourth 14-13 season, just two wins shy of the all-time high for victories in a season. And although the Bulls didn’t qualify for the C-USA Tournament because UAB and Southern Miss held the tiebreakers for the final two spots in the 12-team tournament, this year’s team garnered just the seventh winning season in the program’s 30-year history.
“We’re there,” Fernandez said of the Bulls’ winning record. “It’s something to build on and should help recruiting. It’s something we can move on. And who knows, if we had everyone healthy, maybe we could have won 18, 19 games.”
Injuries were a constant nemesis for Fernandez. Starting with Lindsey Smith’s decision to quit the team prior to the beginning of the season following her second torn anterior cruciate ligament, Fernandez’s Bulls always seemed undermanned.
The first game saw Sarah Lochmann go down with a stress fracture and miss the next six weeks. She returned just in time to replace Jen Kline, who went down with a stress fracture of her own Dec. 16. The inability to have 10 healthy bodies stymied Fernandez’s attempts to play 40 minutes of full-court pressure basketball. And the thought of looking at 6-foot-5 Jameelah Trimble sitting on the bench in street clothes must have given Fernandez nightmares as his team was outrebounded by the opposition to the tune of 11 boards a game.
“We were absolutely destroyed in the paint all year,” Fernandez said. “We just didn’t have enough bodies and no presence in the post.”
With the Bulls’ biggest Achilles heel being size inside, the addition of Trimble, who sat out this year after she transferred from Florida, will be a huge boon for the 2002-03 Bulls. Fernandez has also proven himself an adept recruiter, with his 2001 class ranked No. 36 by All Star Girls Report. Recruiting is the one area Fernandez targeted as key in the off-season. He wants to add one or two post players at least 6-foot-2 during the spring signing period to multitalented guard Valerie de Velasco, who signed in the fall.
That group will face a daunting task in 2002-03. Expectations on Fernandez and the Bulls will be to expound upon this year’s success. Fernandez himself already has discussed postseason tournament play. Standing in USF’s way, though, will be the No. 1 Connecticut Huskies.
The Huskies, who are currently undefeated, come to the Sun Dome to play the Bulls Dec. 28. If that’s not enough to test the Bulls, they have a trip to Indiana as well. Even all of that can’t temper Fernandez’s excitement.
“I’m excited about the future of the program.”