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C-USA’s up next

The USF women’s basketball team closed its non-conference schedule Tuesday night with a 73-58 victory over Niagara at the Sun Dome to enter Conference USA play with a winning record.

The Bulls (7-6) used a 22-point run in the first half to overcome an early eight-point deficit and earn their fourth win in six games. Niagara pulled within six late in the second half after trailing by 12 at halftime, but USF, led by freshmen forwards Nalini Miller and Jessica Dickson, pulled away for good in the final minutes.

“I don’t think we came out of the gates with the kind of intensity that we should have had early on,” USF coach Jose Fernandez said. “We didn’t do a good job of containing the dribble and we were one pass away from the ball, and we would go help cover and they would pitch it out and hit open shots early on.”

Miller, who posted her sixth double-double of the season, thinks the team’s tendency to rely on quick scoring runs could hurt it. While the team has proven capable of providing the scoring runs, it has also given up its share. A 23-3 run by Georgia on Sunday sealed the win for the Bulldogs, while Tuesday night’s game might have been a different story had USF not turned things around after an 8-0 run by Niagara to open the game.

“A problem has been for us that we come out of the locker room flat sometimes,” she said. “What we need to do going into conference play is treat every possession like it’s our last. We need to be careful with the ball and with the shots we take, and if we can play like that we will be in every game.”

The team opens its conference schedule at Charlotte on Friday. Last season, the team went 2-12 in C-USA en route to a 7-20 record. This year, the team has already matched its win total from last year and, Fernandez said, the Bulls are ready after a tough winter schedule.

“We’re over .500, and that’s real big,” he said. “We’ve played a tough schedule, but it has made us better. We’re ready for Charlotte, the defending Conference USA champions, who we beat at home last year.”

Dickson, the team’s leading scorer with 16.4 points per game going into the contest, led all scorers with 23 points. Miller scored a season-high 22 points to go with 14 rebounds. She has gotten increasingly physical as the season has progressed, and is filling a void in the paint the team has struggled with in recent years.

“I have to realize I am playing in the post, and that I have to use my body because I am playing against some bigger girls down there,” Miller said. “I realized playing against Florida, who had a big girl in the post, and against Georgia and Florida State who both had big post players, that I have to use my body to have a presence under the basket. From listening to my teammates and coaches, I know what I have to do.”

Miller’s play the last few games has demonstrated her increased confidence compared to earlier in the year, when she doubted her ability to give the team the post presence it needs.

“They have stressed the importance of having a post presence, and at the beginning of the season I wasn’t sure I could handle it, that it would be too much for me,” she said. “But I have my teammates and my coaches encouraging me and telling me to stay relaxed and take my time, and I’m seeing as I go along that I can do it.”

USF, which was already playing without forwards Sharon Cambridge, who was out with strep throat, and Rae Rae Sayles, who missed her seventh consecutive game due to suspension, lost two more players during the game. Guard Anedra Gilmore left after playing just three minutes due to a back injury suffered Sunday against Georgia. Forward Ezria Parsons left late in the second half with a sprained right ankle. Both players are day-to-day, while Fernandez said Sayles will remain inactive this weekend.

Bennett steps down

USF women’s assistant basketball coach Jan Bennett has resigned from the team for personal reasons, USF coach Jose Fernandez said.

USF women’s director of basketball operations Amy Wright has been promoted to be the team’s third assistant, replacing Bennett.

“Jan’s been an unbelievable asset to our program, not only in the community but in the university and on the basketball floor,” Fernandez said.

Bennett served as the team’s director of basketball operations last season before replacing former assistant Jen Schneider, who left the team following last season to accept an assistant position at the University of Central Florida.

Wright, who played at and graduated from the University of Arkansas, was hired this season to replace Bennett.

Fernandez said the team would wait until the end of the season before looking for a new director of basketball operations.