There was nothing that could soothe the dejection they felt.
The No. 19 USF women’s basketball team stood in tears at center court with their arms linked together. The crushing blow of an NCAA Tournament journey coming to an end on their home court finally sank in.
“It hurt. It hurt real bad,” senior forward Alisia Jenkins said, painfully remembering the team’s 60-52 loss to Louisville in the second round last season.
Holding a one-point lead with less than four minutes remaining, a late surge by the Cardinals shut the door on USF’s historic campaign.
“For me, it lingered for a little minute,” Jenkins said. “I started to question myself like, ‘What if I did this?’ If I was playing as hard as I could, then I feel we could’ve won.
“Once you start questioning yourself … that means you weren’t really playing as hard as you could.”
That “little minute” meant close to three months of second-guessing herself before her mindset switched to what really mattered to her: making it back and putting those demons to rest.
USF returns all five starters from last season’s squad and the expectation has only been heightened.
“Definitely Final Four,” senior guard Courtney Williams said of the team’s expectations this season. “But I’m thinking national championship.
“I feel that if you don’t feel like your program isn’t going to go that far, then you shouldn’t be playing basketball.”
Williams set USF’s single-season record for points with 710 last season and is nearing 2,000 for her career. But if the team doesn’t go far, all of those accolades mean nothing, she said.
“(Reaching 2,000) would be an honor, but I’m thinking about winning,” Williams said. “If those come along with winning, I’ll definitely be thankful.”
USF hopes to add more shooting to its already-potent offense.
Jenkins said she has bolstered her arsenal over the summer, adding more outside shots and pull-up jumpers.
“We worked as hard as we possibly could doing individual workouts,” Jenkins said. “Especially me, I had three-a-days working in the weight room, postgame and then I worked on my shooting. I really want to work on being an offensive threat for my team.”
A tall task for Jenkins, who averaged a double-double per game in 2014 while leading the American Athletic Conference in rebounds with 397 total.
“Normally I have my post moves, but I pretty much have all of those moves down,” Jenkins said confidently. “I can do basically anything off a post move … now, since I’m a trailer. I’m working on shooting the three when I get the ball if I’m open and being confident in my shot.”
Jenkins has also begun finishing with her left hand. Giving her opponents a second option to weigh makes the daunting task of guarding her even more difficult.
To complement the dynamic duo of Williams and Jenkins among others, the Bulls added a new face in the locker room in freshman forward Kitija Laksa, who was rated a five-star prospect by Blue Star Europe.
The Latvian native has what Jenkins believes is a shot that compares to former USF star Inga Orekhova. Laksa gets it off the tips of her fingers quick enough that Jenkins — also the team’s leading blocker — can hardly get in position to defend.
“She lets it fly faster than Inga,” Jenkins said. “Inga used to let it fly, but (Laksa) doesn’t even have to get set and let it go.”
With a tough loss now in their rearview mirror, the Bulls look like a team motivated and poised for what could be another historic run.
“What’s going through my head is: get as many wins as we can and make it to the tournament,” Jenkins said. “I know we’re going to make it to the Final Four this year.
“We have all of the pieces.”