Lawson ‘cherishes’ season despite early exit in WNIT

The Bulls’ attempt at defending their WNIT title was short-lived, bringing center Jessica Lawson’s career to an abrupt end Thursday.

Florida (15-16, 7-9) began the game on a 20-6 run and never looked back, defeating the shorthanded Bulls 61-54 in the first round of the tournament at the O’Connell Center in Gainesville.

“I have very mixed emotions right now,” Lawson, a sixth-year senior, said after the game. “Nobody wanted the season to end, but at the same time, we played hard and fought to the finish. I love this team, and I am very proud of my teammates.”

Lawson had perhaps the best season in her career, finishing with a Big East-leading 18 double-doubles, which included 26 points and 12 rebounds against the Gators.

“I thought that Lawson finished her career on a tremendous note,” said Bulls coach Jose Fernandez. “I wish we could have gotten her a few more games in this tournament, but I told our team that only two teams finish the season with a win: the NCAA champion and the WNIT champion. I was happy with the way we came out in the second half and played strong until the end.”

No other Bull scored more than seven points. USF (15-16, 6-10), which lost eight of its last 10 games, shot just 27 percent from the field and committed 21 turnovers. The Bulls were stretched to eight available players entering the final stretch of the season because of injuries and suspensions to key players.

“We battled through a ton of adversity this season, but I think it brought our team closer,” Lawson said. “We stuck together through everything and mentally bonded. I have no complaints because we gave it our all every game.”

Forward Melissa Dalembert and guard Allyson Speed also played their last games. But, ultimately, the youth and lack of depth caught up with the Bulls, Fernandez said.

“We never expected to be down to so few players,” he said. “Conditioning definitely takes a toll when you have just seven girls, but we didn’t shoot the ball particularly well and we struggled to take care of it. Those are two things that you just cannot do at this stage of the season.”

Last season, the Bulls won the WNIT championship with a 75-71 victory against Kansas. Even though they couldn’t make a run in the tournament this year, Lawson said she’s proud that USF made the postseason throughout her entire career.

“I greatly enjoyed this season,” Lawson said. “We played a lot of top teams and were in almost every game, which speaks volumes about our program. I’m sad to see it end, but playing at USF was a wonderful experience for me. I made some memories that I will cherish for a very long time.”