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Commentary: Reaching the Final Four no longer a pipe dream for USF women’s basketball

USF coach Jose Fernandez led the Bulls to the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season. ORACLE FILE PHOTO/ADAM MATHIEU

Three minutes, 43 seconds.

What is considered such a short period of time for some, turned into months of wondering “What if?” for the USF women’s basketball team. From that mark in the second-round game of the NCAA Tournament against third-seeded Louisville, the Bulls collapsed before more than 5,000 fans at the Sun Dome.

Shots that had been dropping initially, failed to fall. A late lead turned into an insurmountable deficit. When the final horn sounded, a once-sure trip to the Sweet 16 was derailed by an eight-point loss at the hands of a former conference nemesis.

“Last year was a special year, especially the way it turned out. But we didn’t want our season to end,” USF coach Jose Fernandez said. “The goal was for it to finish in downtown and not here on campus.” 

The Bulls, ranked 19th in USA TODAY’s preseason coaches poll and 20th in the Associated Press Top 25, will be heading downtown this year — for a parade.

USF will conclude its season in the Final Four. No, that’s not a misprint — this will not only be the best season in program history, it will also be the most-celebrated season this school has ever seen from any of its revenue sports.

Buy your season tickets. Get your flights booked to Indianapolis. This team is for real.

“If we play together as a team, we should go all the way,” said senior forward Alisia Jenkins, who averaged 12.8 points and 11.3 rebounds and started every game last season. 

While some teams would rather forget disappointing defeats, the Bulls have used that time as motivation for this season. When they walked into the Muma Center for their first practice, that was the time shown on the clock. Every player knew exactly what it meant.

“I feel like we always have something more to prove,” senior guard Courtney Williams said. “We need to be higher than we are now. We’re trying to be better than … we were last year. That’s always the goal: to get better.”

With the veteran experience this team has, it will get there. 

The Bulls return all five starters from last season’s squad, which finished runner-up to traditional-powerhouse Connecticut in the American Athletic Conference. Both Williams and Jenkins were awarded preseason first-team All-Conference honors.

So, what’s going to be different? Jenkins said the team has more consistent shooters and rebounders. Newcomer Kitija Laksa, who played for the Latvian senior national team for the past two years, also provides the Bulls with a sharp-shooter from long range. 

“It’s in her hands and it’s gone,” Jenkins said.

Aside from skills, these Bulls also have fuel. 

Faced with arguably one of the toughest schedules in the country with non-conference games against the likes of No. 20 Chattanooga, No. 11 Mississippi State and No. 8 Louisville to go along with a twin-bill with UConn in AAC play, USF will be battle-tested come Selection Sunday.

They’re hungry. They want this.

“This team should be challenged where we want to get to,” Fernandez said.

Bring it on.