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USF wins WNIT Championship

For the first time in school history, a USF basketball team ended the season in different fashion: victory.

Despite playing in front of an opposing crowd of 16,113 and having to fight a late Kansas (22-14) run, the USF women’s basketball team defeated the Jayhawks 75-71 Saturday to win the 2009 WNIT Championship.

The victory marks the first men’s or women’s postseason title in basketball, and USF ends the season with a program-best 27-10 record.

“I could not be prouder of this group,” said USF coach Jose Fernandez. “This is a memory they will never forget — this is what college athletics is all about.”

USF entered halftime on a 10-2 run with an eight-point lead, and the Bulls pushed the lead to 10 during the second half.

However, Kansas came back to cut it to 69-66 with less than four minutes remaining. But tight defense helped the Bulls to pull away at the end.

“We’re a great second half team,” said USF senior Jessica Lawson. “I really give credit to our leadership. We pulled each other together and calmed each other down.”

Falling behind early in the first half, USF mounted a 10-2 run before the midway point that fueled a defensive effort to keep Kansas to less than 10 points in the first nine minutes. With a free throw from Jazmine Sepulveda, USF retained a one-point lead and never trailed again.

Senior Shantia Grace, who was awarded the WNIT MVP trophy after a 14-point performance, said it was a high-intensity game.

“We knew they were a great team,” Grace said. “We just had to attack them just like they attacked us.”

Lawson said Grace led the Bulls Saturday.

“(Grace) is our leading scorer, but she’s also been our leader vocally,” she said.

After the game, the Bulls gathered at mid-court celebrating and holding the WNIT trophy. The players and coaches ascended a ladder and cut down the net. At that point, Lawson said her emotions began to sink in.

“It’s still surreal,” she said. “I’m full of emotions. I’m happy we won, but I am sad that it was my last game.”

Six other seniors completed their final game. Lawson said Saturday’s victory and her relationship with the team is what she’ll remember.

“It is a blessing that we won,” she said. “Only two teams get to say that they won at the end of the season — we are one of those teams. This shows that we are strong, and that we can overcome anything if we work together.”