In USF coach Jose Fernandez’s 10 years with the USF women’s basketball program, he said his team has never dealt with as much adversity on or off the court as it has this season.
Although they’re on the bubble, the Bulls (14-13, 5-9) can still reach their seventh consecutive postseason tournament and grab a WNIT bid, as they look to snap a three-game losing streak playing Louisville (12-14, 4-9) at Freedom Hall on Saturday at 2 p.m.
The odds were against USF, which returned only six players from a team that went 27-10 and won the WNIT championship a season ago, when one of its most experienced players – forward Porche Grant – left the team for personal reasons before the season.
Fernandez also missed the season opener because he had severe abdominal pains.
“I have had to deal with health concerns a couple times this season,” Fernandez said. “I was out with stomach pains for the whole week leading up to our first game and had to miss it. That is a crucial time to be away from your team, especially with so many newcomers.”
Senior guard Janae Stokes, USF’s leading 3-point shooter, was suspended at the end of November for violating team rules and returned Dec. 13, and forward Melissa Dalembert took time away from the team after her family was affected by the devastating earthquake in Haiti on Jan. 12.
And the hits kept coming.
Starting point guard Jasmine Wynne tore her ACL and was ruled out for the season in late January, and Stokes and two other players – junior forward Sequoyah Griffin and junior guard Dominique English – were suspended indefinitely on Feb. 13 for violating team rules.
“We have dealt with a few off-the-court disciplinary problems that are just uncalled for,” Fernandez said. “I have never put winning basketball games ahead of doing the right thing, and our job as coaches is to bring these kids in and help make them better people. I have never wavered with my rules and I never will.”
But Fernandez, who has about eight players available now, said the experience is valuable to his young squad.
“We have a good chance of reaching the WNIT if we finish the season with an above .500 record,” Fernandez said. “With an RPI in the top 100 and a solid strength of schedule, I feel that we should qualify, which would be such a great reward for this group of eight players. Nobody expected us to win this many games this year, considering all we lost going in and all we have dealt with since the season started.”
USF has an RPI of 97 and strength of schedule of 54. USF guard Leondra Doomes-Stephens said she’s confident the Bulls can make an impact in the postseason if they play as a team.
USF, coming off a 72-62 loss to Providence on Tuesday in which Doomes-Stephens and freshman point guard KaNeisha Saunders combined for 45 points, has two regular season games left.
“For us to reach the WNIT tournament and advance deep, we need everyone to contribute and not just two or three players,” said Doomes-Stephens, who scored a career-high 22 points Tuesday. “We have to keep our heads up and stay together.”