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Bulls begin season without key players

The women’s basketball team that went 1-2 this weekend is not the team we’ll see all season. Coach Jose Fernandez said his lineup will undergo a dramatic shift in January, when guard Andrea Smith is fully healthy and guard Inga Orekhova regains eligibility.

Smith, USF’s leading scorer from last season and the Bulls’ only All-Big East Honorable Mention, tore her ACL in the Big East tournament last season and has not yet been cleared to return to contact drills, though she is close.

Orekhova has a chance to be one of the best rookies in the Big East when she regains eligibility Jan. 7, if she can adapt quickly to life in the league. Orekhova, a 6-foot-2 guard from Sevastapol, Ukraine, was suspended by the NCAA for violating her amateur status with a stint as an unpaid player with Austrian professional team UBBC APOsport Herzogenburg before signing with Northeastern Oklahoma A&M.

Once Orekhova and Smith hit the floor, a deep and experienced Bulls’ backcourt will become even deeper.

“We’re definitely going to be a different team in January when Inga Orekhova comes along, too,” Fernandez said.

Until then, Fernandez will rely on a constant rotation of Sasha Bernard, Kaneisha Saunders, Andrell Smith, Shalethia Stringfield and Jasmine Wynne. That group features all upperclassmen, except for Stringfield, a true freshman.

In the frontcourt, Fernandez said he has the best pair of interior players he can recall in his 11 years with USF in centers Akila McDonald and Caitlin Rowe. Rowe is also comfortable playing power forward, which allows both to be on the floor at the same time.

“We’ve had big ones together like that, but not as talented as both of them,” Fernandez said. “This group is 6-(foot)-5, 6-(foot)-4 and your 6-(foot)-4 can step outside and hit the 3 and also play to the basket – I think both of them are more realistic Big-East-type of inside-outside guys (than I’ve had before).”

In her first game at USF since transferring from Gulf Coast Community College – the same school Andrea and Andrell Smith came to USF from – Rowe put on an offensive clinic, scoring a game-high 19 points in a loss to No. 14 Florida State. She shot 7-for-12, including 2-for-2 from 3-point range and 3-for-3 from the free-throw line.

“Caitlin is very versatile,” Fernandez said. “She can step in, she can step out and shoot the 3. She can play with her back to the basket. Right now, it gives us some versatility with a big frontline.”