Bulls ready for new season

After finishing with a 16-16 record last season and appearing in its second consecutive Women’s National Invitational Tournament, the South Florida women’s basketball team is reaching for a higher goal in 2008-2009 — the NCAA tournament.

And the Bulls have a dynamic two-guard tandem to lead them.

“That’s all we really have been talking about — getting back to the NCAA tournament,” coach Jose Fernandez said. “There is one tournament that everybody in the country looks at, and that’s the NCAA tournament. Last year, we had no depth at guard, but this year we have that depth, so it will help us.”

Fernandez, entering his ninth season as head coach, has led the Bulls to their best five-year stretch in the program’s history, posting a 91-66 record. He said that continuing that success this year depends on two players who are arguably among the best guards in the Big East Conference — Shantia Grace and Jazmine Sepulveda.

“When those two played well last year, our team played well. They’ve had a lot of pressure on them to perform well,” Fernandez said.

Grace, a senior shooting guard from Riverview High School in Sarasota, staked her claim as one of the best perimeter players in the Big East last year — grabbing All-Big East Second Team. Grace also ranked in the top 20 in the NCAA in scoring with 19.1 points per game.

She starts the year as a candidate for the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award, given to the best senior guard in America under 5 feet, 8 inches. Grace, however, said she is focused on the goal of the team.

“It’s going to be a great year for us,” she said. “We were average last year, but we all have the same goal this year — the NCAA tournament. We want to show coach what we are able to do.”

Sepulveda is entering her second year in the program after transferring from Kirkwood Community College. Not only did Sepulveda score more than 10 points in 17 of 32 games last season, she averaged more than four rebounds per game from the guard position.

Sepulveda said she is finally settling into Fernandez’s high-tempo system.

“I’m so much more comfortable now,” she said. “Now that I’ve been here, I know what to expect from coach and from my teammates. That’s huge for my confidence level.”

Fernandez said Grace and Sepulveda  could be better than they were last year because there is less pressure on them to perform at such a high level.

“They need to take care of the basketball, and play well offensively for us,” he said. “However, we have some talented guards coming into the program for this year that should take some of the load off those two. Instead of them playing 40 minutes a game, I see them playing for like 32 minutes a game.”

The Bulls are adding two experienced newcomers to the squad to back up Grace and Sepulveda. Juniors Alexis Givands and Janae Stokes join USF as transfers from Gulf Coast Community College. Both led GCCC to a junior college national championship last year with a 36-1 record.

Fernandez said that winning mentality could pay off for the team.

“Stokes and Givands are going to play a lot this year,” he said. “It’s going to be huge to have that experience to back up our tandem. Both of them have played in big games, but they’re going to have to learn a new offense and defense.”

They’ll need to fit into Fernandez’s high-tempo full court offense — which involves running up and down the court. Grace said she’s looking forward to having a break.

“Playing 40 minutes is extremely tiring,” she said. “I’m comfortable, though, that my teammates behind me can come in and we won’t miss a beat.”

The Bulls have to be ready to go early.

After five straight postseason appearances but only one NCAA tournament — in 2006 — Fernandez said he made it a point to schedule attractive non-conference opponents that would help his team’s chances at a NCAA tournament spot.

The Bulls will play in the Paradise Jam tournament, at the University of the Virgin Islands on Nov. 27-29. They will play the University of California, University of Iowa and Texas Tech University. California finished second in the Pac-10 last season, and Iowa tied for first in the Big Ten.

“We are going to be tested very early,” Fernandez said. “Those games are going to be crucial for us in the NCAA selection process. It’s so hard to get into the NCAA tournament, and you absolutely need games like that to put on your resume.”

Sepulveda said she thinks the schedule will prepare the team for Big East play, which had Rutgers University and the University of Connecticut finish in the top 10 in the country last season.

“You can’t take a day off in the Big East,” she said. “I think everyone in the Big East is good.”

When it’s all said and done, Grace said she wants the spotlight on the University of South Florida, and that means the NCAA tournament.

“Every team’s goal is to get to the NCAA tournament,” she said. “That’s what everybody watches. The Dukes, the (Connecticuts), and the Tennessees of the world — that’s where we want to be, right up there with those teams.”