With little roster turnover looming, USF builds strong momentum for 2013

Having bounced back from missing the postseason in 2011 and with a roster that will remain mostly intact, the USF women’s basketball team built momentum this season toward 2013 – culminating in a run to the third round of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament.

Though the season ended on a bad note Friday, with a 72-45 loss to the Dukes, it was still a step forward for the program.

“It’s a shame that our season had to end that way,” coach Jose Fernandez said. “I think this team had to go through a lot of adversity, so for us to win 19 games and go .500 in the best league in the country is not particular to the type of season we had. That’s not how we wanted to end the season.”

The Bulls had roster difficulties early in the season, with players returning from injury, sidelined by injury and facing eligibility issues, as well as new players arriving at the program for their first taste of Division I basketball. But it all came together well, as the Bulls returned to the postseason.

The team’s leading returning scorer, guard Andrea Smith, was questionable to start the season, having torn her ACL in the 2011 Big East Tournament against Pittsburgh. After a few weeks of non-contact work at practice, it was decided that Smith would sit the full season on a medical redshirt, retaining eligibility for 2013.

Helping to fill Smith’s absence in the backcourt was the steady hand of Jasmine Wynne, the oldest player on the roster, who was returning from an ACL injury of her own. Wynne excelled this season, showing no signs of previous injury trouble – barring a few games sidelined by a concussion – and leading the team in scoring with 15.4 points per game.

Wynne is the only player on the roster who won’t be there next year, giving the Bulls incredible continuity.

“I’m looking forward to this team having a great offseason,” Fernandez said. “We return everybody, except Jasmine Wynne, and there’s a lot of work to be done in the spring and summer.”

In addition to the return of Smith to the starting lineup, the Bulls will also benefit from having Inga Orekhova available for the whole season, providing the Ukrainian combo guard/forward doesn’t choose to return overseas for a professional career.

Orekhova was ruled ineligible for the first half of the season by the NCAA for playing in a professional Austrian team alongside her mother. Upon her debut, Orekhova became USF’s best sharpshooter, leading the team in 3-pointers made despite only playing in 20 of the team’s 35 games.

Freshman point guard Shalethia Stringfield and junior center Caitlin Rowe both became dependable players in the USF starting lineup in their first year in Tampa.

Stringfield arrived from Potter’s House Christian Academy in Jacksonville and quickly found her way into the starting lineup with her dependability and cerebral game, playing in all but one game.

Rowe, originally from Canberra, Australia, transitioned well from Gulf Coast Community College, the same college that twins Andrea and Andrell Smith attended before signing with USF. Rowe tied for the team lead in blocks with sophomore Akila McDonald.

With a roster that should be nearly identical to this season’s and the reopening of the renovated Sun Dome, the Bulls will expect to make a second-straight trip to the postseason next year, or more.

“I think, when you look at it on paper, when we return what we return, we get Andrea Smith back and if we can have a pretty good recruiting class, we should have a very nice year,” Fernandez said. “But we’ll see.”