Grace adds to her legacy with WNIT championship

Shantia Grace’s career ended in silence.

Not the usual solemn atmosphere that many times filled the USF basketball locker room at the end of a season — this was a different sound for the senior guard.

She stood before more than 16,000 quieted Kansas fans who made Allen Field House a raucous environment for nearly 38 minutes of basketball on Saturday.

“I remember, entering those last three minutes, those fans were so loud,” Grace said. “We just stayed focused and afterward it wasn’t loud anymore, but I honestly don’t remember what the sound was really like. We were too busy jumping up and down.”

USF coach Jose Fernandez walked up and down the bench giving high-fives and pumping his fist. Junior Porche Grant did a cartwheel on the court and there was a team dance party as the Bulls celebrated a 75-71 victory to claim the WNIT crown.

Then, Grace and Fernandez exchanged a hug.

“It was such a long, tough road for us, not getting into the NCAA tournament, which was our focus all season,” Grace said. “To win the games on the road in the tournament and come in and beat Kansas with its fans there was special.”

Grace, who is the only senior on the roster to have spent four years at USF, has made quite a journey, too.

Long gone is the wide-eyedfreshman who stepped in for the injured Tristen Webb nearly four years ago and helped the Bulls make the NCAA tournament, thrusting great expectations on the remainder of her career.

Since that first season, Grace has met those expectations by earning All-Big East honors every year, including first-team All-Big East this season.

“It’s really hard to think about how far I’ve come. It’s hard to put it in perspective,” Grace said. “When Tristen (Webb) went down my freshman year, I had to step in. Since then, I’ve grown as a person. As a player, though, coach Fernandez has been there by my side the whole time. To help win this championship means so much to me.”

The Sarasota native is one of seven seniors on USF’s roster who played their last college basketball game Saturday, and starters Jazmine Sepulveda, Jessica Lawson and Brittany Denson have created a strong bond together, Grace said.

“We’ll never forget how we stuck with each other and how we came together on the court,” she said. “This team is special. We’ve made a great friendship. I’ll remember it the rest of my life.”

Together, they carried the Bulls to a 13-1 nonconference record and a .500 mark in the Big East. They felt the heartbreak of being left out of the NCAA tournament together — and together led USF to its first national postseason championship in school history.

On Saturday, Grace stood on the court after the game, waiting to cut down the nets for the first time in her career and wearing a USF jersey for her last. She sported a straw hat and a smile.

“Yeah, I kept a good piece of that net, too,” she said.