Bulls brace for Bearcat fight in tourney

It’s a new position for the USF women’s basketball team, but one that won’t allow the Bulls to get comfortable before it begins today in Forth Worth, Texas.The eighth-seeded Bulls open the Conference USA tournament today against No. 9-seeded Cincinnati at 2 p.m. in the Daniel-Meyer Coliseum.

Though the Bulls are appearing in their first conference tournament since 2000-01, which resulted in a first-round loss to the Bearcats, USF coach Jose Fernandez doesn’t believe his team is at too much of a disadvantage, even if the Bearcats are one of the most successful teams to ever play in the C-USA tournament.

“We have a brand new ball club, so it doesn’t really matter (if no one’s been to the conference tournament before),” Fernandez said. “The ones that have been there (before) aren’t on the floor anyway. Our top eight kids weren’t here.”

However, some, if not all, of the Bearcats players have been to the conference tournament before. In fact, Cincinnati hasn’t missed a C-USA tournament. And not only has Cincinnati been to the C-USA tournament, it has also been very successful. The Bearcats have been to the conference final in each of the past three seasons, and four of the past five. Also, Cincinnati hasn’t lost a first-round game since the tournament’s first year, so there’s every reason to believe that this will be one of the toughest games for the Bulls all season.

“Cincinnati is one of the better defensive teams in the league,” Fernandez said. “As you know, we beat them in overtime on the road, so it’s going to be a tough opening round game. (But) I feel we’re playing our best basketball right now, so we’re in a good position heading into the conference tournament.”

The Bulls have played their best basketball lately, as the team enters the tournament riding a season-high four-game winning streak. The Bulls also have won six of their last seven games, making them one of the hottest C-USA teams entering the tournament. One thing that should help the Bulls is the experience the young team has gained throughout the season.

Freshmen Jessica Dickson, Nalini Miller and Rachael Sheats all have played significant minutes in starting roles this season. Junior Anedra Gilmore has postseason experience in junior college, and the Bulls will welcome back Auburn transfer Ezria Parsons, who returns after a one-game suspension for missing practice before the regular-season finale.

“What I told our (freshmen) is that they’re sophomores now,” Fernandez said. “They’ve already played their freshman year. We’ve got three kids that have started, what, 75 percent of the season? They’re battled-tested, (and) that’s why we played such a competitive non-conference schedule, to prepare them for conference play.”

Cincinnati will have to play without standout Debbie Merrill, who was suspended indefinitely from the team for violating team rules. Merrill was the C-USA freshman-scoring leader before Dickson broke the record earlier this season.

And, according to Fernandez’ assessment, the Bulls should enter today’s game even more relaxed than they have been the past few weeks when the team was trying to lock a possible berth in the Women’s NIT. That should allow the Bulls to chase a different tournament selection – an NCAA Tournament bid that goes to the conference-tournament winner.

“When you look at who the WNIT has selected the last few years, in the position that we’re at right now with our strength of schedule and our RPI, you have to feel pretty good, but you don’t want to tell our players that,” Fernandez said. “Right now we’re just thinking about Cincinnati and hopefully, we can continue on this roll. And you never know, tournament time is a crazy time in the year, anything can happen.”

Dickson named C-USA freshman of the year

Freshman Jessica Dickson was named C-USA’s Freshman of the Year, as well as being named to the C-USA second team and C-USA All-Freshman team, the league office announced Wednesday. Dickson, the nation’s freshman scoring leader at 18.7 points per game, becomes the first USF women’s basketball player to make the conference second team since Aiya Shepard in 2000-01. Dickson, who broke the C-USA freshman scoring record and USF freshman scoring record this season, also is the first player since Tammy Van Oppen (Sun Belt, 1992-93) to be named freshman of the year. Dickson was joined by teammate Nalini Miller on the all-freshman team. Miller, the team’s second leading scorer (10.5) and leading rebounder (7.8), was the only other Bull to make any of the postseason conference awards list.

“I think it is a great honor for Jessica and Nalini,” said USF head women’s basketball coach Jose Fernandez. “I think that both Nalini and Jessica have proven to be two of the top freshmen in the league. I was also hoping to get Rachael Sheats in there as well since she was our second-leading scorer during the conference season, but to get those two named and to get Jessica on second team all-conference is a tremendous accomplishment.”

Houston’s Chandi Jones was named the league’s MVP, while Houston coach Joe Curl was named coach of the year.