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USF faces UF in first step toward title defense

Despite its late season struggles, USF believes it can make a deep run in the WNIT tournament.

The Bulls, who have lost seven of their last nine, will find out if they can back it up in the first round tonight at 7 against Florida at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.

“We have battled through a lot of adversity this season and have been struggling lately on the court,” said senior Melissa Dalembert. “But we feel that we are capable of going all the way and winning this tournament.”

USF, making its seventh consecutive postseason appearance, is the defending champion, surging last year to the program’s first postseason title with a win against Kansas in April.

But this year will be a much tougher challenge for the Bulls, who yield nine newcomers that were not a part of last year’s squad. USF is down to eight available players. Senior Janae Stokes and junior Sequoyah Griffin – the team’s second and third leading scorers – are serving indefinite suspensions for violating team rules. Starting point guard Jasmine Wynne, who played a big part during last season’s run, is out for the season with a torn ACL.

“Any time you can continue to play after your conference tournament is a credit to your coaching staff and your players’ hard work,” said Bulls coach Jose Fernandez. “There are a lot of teams out there that would like to be playing in late March but aren’t selected.”

USF was with the tournament expanding from 48 to 64 teams this year. The Gators (14-16, 7-9), however, received an automatic birth as the highest remaining team from the SEC that did not earn a bid to the NCAA tournament.

Florida is also on a slide, losing six of seven and coming off a 74-61 loss to Auburn in the opening round of the SEC tournament. Fernandez said the game would be good experience for USF’s young squad.

“We are trying to get as many minutes as we can for KaNeisha Saunders, Tahira Johnson, Aleshia Flowers and Tiffany Conner, who are all freshman,” Fernandez said. “This experience will really help those players for next season. Also, Leondra Doomes-Stephens has really come along since the middle of the season, and (sixth-year senior Jessica) Lawson deserves to play as many more games as possible because of all she has done for our program.”

Lawson leads the Bulls with 14.2 points and 10.5 rebounds per game this season and leads the Big East in double-doubles. She only had eight points in USF’s opening round loss to Cincinnati in the Big East tournament.

But the Bulls (15-15, 6-10) are looking to bounce back and replicate last year’s success in the WNIT, said Dalembert, who also had eight points in the loss to Cincinnati.

“We were disappointed with the way we played in the Big East tournament, but we have been working hard in practice at correcting our recent mistakes,” she said. “We have an opportunity to move forward in a new tournament. It’s not the NCAA (tournament), but it’s a tournament we can win just like last year.”