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USF tries to assert itself in Big East race

USF coach Claire Lessinger said she focuses on three aspects when evaluating a team’s success in conference play.

“The Big East is going to be all about who is going to be mentally toughest, who is most prepared and who is physically toughest,” Lessinger said.

USF (9-4, 2-1) will put its mental toughness to the test when it hosts West Virginia (11-8, 1-3) Friday and Pittsburgh (11-7, 3-1) Sunday in the Sun Dome Corral.

The Bulls enter the weekend with a five-set loss to Connecticut and a canceled match against St. John’s because of power failure at USF on Sunday.

“Our girls are going to continue to get tested, but I think they’re ready and focused,” Lessinger said. “They know what this weekend means for us.”

USF and Pittsburgh are two of five teams in the Big East with only one conference loss. The Panthers are third in the conference in hitting percentage, so their offense will be the key thing to stop, Lessinger said.

USF should have the defense to do it.

USF senior middle blocker Alli Arbogast is No. 1 in the nation with 1.74 blocks per set. She had 16 against Connecticut.

USF is ranked fourth nationally in blocks per set. The Bulls are also first in opponent hitting percentage in the Big East, holding teams .157.

Lessinger said she hopes the team can improve its offense.

“Blocking has been our defense strength, but our focus this week in practice has been offensive efficiency,” Lessinger said. “We need to be able to stay right there with a team like Pittsburgh … If our block isn’t working, we’ll be able to fall back on some other things that we feel have been strengths of ours.”

Friday’s match against West Virginia will be the season’s annual “Dig Pink” event to raise money for breast cancer research through a partnership with Dig Pink and the Side-Out Foundation. In six years of participation, USF has raised over $10,000.