A defensive USF team to host Niagara tonight

The USF women’s basketball team closes its non-conference schedule tonight when Niagara visits the Sun Dome.

The Bulls (6-6) can match their win total from last season and enter conference play with a winning record with a win over the Purple Eagles (7-3). Last season, USF entered conference play at 5-7 en route to a 7-20 finish.

USF coach Jose Fernandez said before the winter break that the team would have to continue playing tough defense to compete. The Bulls won three games over the winter break, with the defense forcing 29 turnovers a game in the wins. The USF defense has forced at least 25 turnovers seven times this season, including a 35-take away performance against Florida Atlantic on Dec. 30. But Fernandez’s other concern, the team’s shooting, remained an issue as inconsistency plagued the squad.

The team beat UC-Riverside on Dec. 19 by shooting 58 percent from the field, but followed it two nights later by shooting just 27 percent against UNLV, the team’s second-poorest showing of the season. The Bulls will have their work cut out for them against Niagara, which enters on a five-game winning streak.

A pair of freshmen have led the Bulls this season. Forward Nalini Miller was named Conference USA Player of the Week on Monday for her performance last week. Miller averaged 17 points and eight rebounds as the Bulls went 1-1 for the week. Miller leads the team in rebounds with 8.9 per game and has five double-doubles on the year. She has also seemingly addressed the team’s concerns in the post area on defense, averaging 2.3 blocks and 2.1 steals per game.

Another freshman, forward Jessica Dickson, leads the team in scoring at 16.4 points per game. Dickson has scored in double figures 10 times this season, including nine times during a 10-game streak, in which USF had three players in double figures in every game.

Guards Alana Tanksley and Anedra Gilmore have also emerged as key players for the team, scoring in double figures a combined five times during the winter break. The depth the team uncovered during its six winter games is a pleasant surprise that should prove valuable as the team heads into C-USA play.