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‘Right mentality’ keys freshman’s success

The Bulls knew they were getting a talented point guard when freshman Kaneisha Saunders decided to attend USF.

What they didn’t know was that she’d become a major player so early in the season.

Saunders has averaged 12.3 points a game in her first four, including a 20-point effort against Saint Peter’s College in the second game of her career.

“The level of play in college basketball is what I expected so far,” Saunders said. “The reality hasn’t truly set in yet, but I’m sure it will when conference play begins in January.”

Saunders came off the bench in USF’s first three contests, but has now emerged as the Bulls’ starting point guard after sophomore Jasmine Wynne’s slow start to the 2009-10 season.

“We expected (Saunders) to come in and contribute,” said Bulls coach Jose Fernandez. “Considering all she has had to learn by taking over as the point guard, we couldn’t ask anything more from a freshman. She has handled the pressure tremendously well so far.”

Saunders entered with a lot of hype, averaging 23.5 points and earning Florida 6A Player of the Year honors from the Palm Beach Post while attending Atlantic High School in Delray Beach.

Saunders, however, said the transition from high school basketball to the NCAA was challenging.

“(The transition) was definitely hard in the beginning,” she said. “But I have a lot of mental toughness which helps my game. Basketball is all about being strong mentally and I feel that I have the right mentality to do well at this level.”

Saunders has a chance to continue her success for a much different USF team, which has nine newcomers, as the Bulls (2-2) face Montana (1-3) in the Courtyard by Marriott L.A. Thanksgiving Classic on Friday at 6 p.m. in Los Angeles.

If USF defeats Montana, the Bulls will play the winner of the Loyola Marymount (2-2) and Saint Louis (2-2) game on Saturday. The losers face each other Saturday as well.

The Bulls also play UC Irvine (1-3) on Monday night to conclude a three-game, four-day trip to California.

“We have three straight road games against three tough opponents,” Fernandez said. “It’s important to be prepared to play when you go on the road, and we will just take one game at a time.”

USF assistant coach Andrea Williams has worked with Saunders this season. Williams said she’s impressed with Saunders’ talent.

“(Saunders) has been our freshman spark,” Williams said. “This is where she wanted to be from the start and she is fulfilling her dream. ‘Kay’ has a big responsibility as a point guard leading this group and has had some growing pains which come with inexperience, but she has shown glimpses of excellence. We are in a great position right now because we have her for the next four years.”