Bulls rising

A day after his USF women’s basketball team secured the best season in school history, coach Jose Fernandez spent Monday on the golf course.

If anything, he’s earned at least that.

With Sunday’s win over Tulane, USF won its 17th game of the season, overtaking the 1977-78 squad’s 16-win season and, in turn, solidified its place as the best women’s basketball team to ever have the letters USF written across its jerseys.

And the season isn’t even over yet.

Sitting at 17-9 with two more regular-season games to go (both versus UAB), the Bulls are far from a lock for the NCAA Tournament.

But the fact that this late in the season people are still talking about it is a big step — four years ago, a berth in the NCAA Tournament must have seemed out of the question.

Could a ticket to this year’s dance be on its way?

Fernandez thinks the Bulls will need to reach the quarterfinals of the C-USA Tournament to have a realistic shot at the NCAA Tournament.

“I don’t think winning the final two and losing in the first round of the conference tournament will get us there,” said Fernandez, whose Bulls have won three straight and are 7-5 in the conference. “There’s too many good teams in Conference USA.”

And USF, finally, is one of them.

What Fernandez has accomplished since his arrival at USF is nothing less than amazing.

In his first campaign in 2000-01, the Bulls were abysmal and finished 4-24. Fernandez said when he first took over, “It was one of the worst programs in the entire country.”

In four short seasons, Fernandez and his tireless staff have turned one of the worst programs into one of the most promising programs around.

Ignited by their invite to last year’s WNIT (they finished the regular season 14-14), the Bulls have upped their act a notch this season.

Signs of USF’s emergence were evident early.

At the preseason WNIT, the Bulls knocked off favored Middle Tennessee State, and took perennial national powerhouse UCONN to overtime on the road Dec. 1.

Fernandez is quick to point out that a lot of the turnaround has to be credited to four players he picked up before the 2002-03 season.

Anedra Gilmore, now a senior, transferred from the junior college ranks, where she led Gulf Coast Community College to a national title. Fernandez calls the team leader “an extension of myself on the court.”

Sophomores Jessica Dickson, Nalini Miller and Rachael Sheats round off 2002’s exceptional recruiting class.

“They have to continue to work hard in the classroom and continue to improve in the spring and summer,” Fernandez said. “Right now, as a team, we’re not where we want to be yet.”

Fernandez is right: This team will be better in the years to come.

USF should have all the tools it needs to be a force in the Big East next season. They have a reliable scoring threat in Dickson, a strong low-post presence in Miller and junior Ezria Parsons, and an inflexible defender in Sheats.

“We got a lot of people excited about USF women’s basketball,” Fernandez said. “And that’s never been the case before.”