For seniors Melissa Tape and Sarah Lochmann, it seems as though their careers as members of the University of South Florida women’s basketball team have finally come full circle.
Better yet, this may be the second time around the circle, depending on how one looks at the circumstances.
Their time at USF began with racism allegations against former coach Jerry Ann Winters, and when their freshman season finally ended, the Bulls sat at 4-24 under first-year coach Jose Fernandez. Then it blossomed into a surprising 14-13 mark the following year, only to lead to a 7-20 record last season.
But now, Tape and Lochmann will go down as a part of USF history when they help the Bulls face Richmond in the first round of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament on Thursday.
“It’s kind of been like, well it has been a roller coaster,” Lochmann said.”Going from a 4-24 season my freshman year to a postseason tournament, you really can’t describe it,” Tape said. “It truly is a gift.”
But the gift doesn’t come without sacrifice, and there isn’t a pair of players on USF’s roster that would understand that better. The two have been an integral part of the team Fernandez has assembled during his four-year tenure. But with the influx of talent brought to this year’s team, both Tape and Lochmann were forced to take on lesser roles this season.
Lochmann, who was the Bulls’ leading returning scorer from last year’s team, nearly averaged more points as a junior (9.7) than she did minutes (11.2) this season. And Tape, who likely would have been the team’s starting point guard before this year’s recruiting class, has been forced to play behind junior-college transfer Anedra Gilmore.
“Well, I’m not going to say it was easy,” Lochmann said, “but I knew that coming into this year that there were a lot of players coming to this team, some new players. I kind of had an idea that my role was going to be different, so I tried to adjust to it before the season started.”
But Tape doesn’t believe their roles have changed all that much.
“In the past we have played, and then there’s been years where we haven’t played so much, and this is just one of those years,” Tape said. “So our roles really (haven’t) changed that much. We still feel as though we’re a strong part of this team, and when your minutes come, you just have to take advantage of them.”
And both Tape and Lochmann have taken advantage of their minutes on the court. Tape is second on the team in assists and 3-point field goals, while Lochmann has shot 43 percent from the field and turned the ball over just 11 times this season, only one more than the injured Rae Rae Sayles, who played in only five games this season.
Both Fernandez and the team understand how difficult it must have been for the seniors this season, but they know the reward outweighs the sacrifice.
“It’s got to be a little hard on them because they’ve been here for four years, but I think they’ve handled it well,” Fernandez said. “Both of them have been a very big part of this program, and I really feel good for them because they’ve gone through the bad times.
“I think with them as seniors and leaving on this type of note, being on the first team from USF to go to the (WNIT), that’s a great accomplishment.”
“It’s not as if they fell off,” Gilmore said. “It’s just part of knowing your role, and I think they’ve been playing that role real well. It’s kind of hard to go from playing a lot of minutes to sitting, but I don’t think they really mind because we’re winning.
“And that’s what’s so good about this team. I don’t think anyone cares about playing time as long as we win. As long as we win, we win as a team.”
But playing as a team wasn’t always the case during Lochmann and Tape’s tenure at USF. It seemed before this season, something always went wrong, often leading to long losing streaks and lost seasons.
“In the past years, we’ve had turmoil at some point in the season with somebody on our team,” Lochmann said. “That’s where losing comes into play.”
The different experiences the senior duo has encountered may enable them to play an integral part in USF’s postseason run. Because the team starts three freshmen — Jessica Dickson, Nalini Miller and Rachael Sheats — who don’t have a great amount of experience — Lochmann and Tape may be relied upon to provide leadership through the Bulls’ tournament run.
“We really should take on a leadership role because I don’t really think they understand the caliber of this tournament,” Tape said. “We have been through the 4-24 season, and we have seen this program develop right in front of our eyes, going from not a good team to playing in the postseason.
“For them it may be just another game, but for me and Sarah this is an awesome opportunity to prove that (the program) is really good now, that we’re going to continue to develop and keep making postseason tournaments year after year. We should be leaders just to make them realize that this is a very important game, and we have such a great opportunity.”
One important thing to any senior is the final home game when he or she is honored in front of the home crowd on their home court.
But Tape and Lochmann were robbed of that honor this season, when the Bulls were forced out of the Sun Dome and into the Corral, something that didn’t sit well with them or the team.
“I know they were disappointed because they had their senior night in (the Corral),” Gilmore said. “And I was disappointed and I’m not even a senior. I felt like that was a lack of respect (shown to them).”
“Yeah, it was a bit of a downfall,” Tape said. “I think the last time we played in the Corral was our freshman year, so the Sun Dome has been our home. It was a bit anti-climactic. It was a good send off, with the win (against Tulane) as well, but it could have been better.”
And it could get better. Should the Bulls win against the Spiders on Thursday, it is very likely they would host a second-round game this weekend against the winner of the Florida State-South Alabama game.
And a chance to get back on the Sun Dome floor one more time is something Tape and Lochmann both would like to experience, especially because the last time they played in the Sun Dome resulted in a double-overtime victory against a ranked TCU team.
“It would be fitting,” Fernandez said with a smile.
Contact Oracle Sports Editor Adam Adkins at firstname.lastname@example.org