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Women’s basketball back in AP Top 25 after five-week absence

USF guard Kitja Laksa attempts to dribble past Ohio State’s Sierra Calhoun in Sunday’s win. Laksa finished the game with a season-high 41 points. ORACLE PHOTO/CHAVELI GUZMAN

In the wake of upsetting No. 13 Ohio State on Sunday 84-65, USF women’s basketball made it back into the latest Associated Press (AP) Top 25 poll, coming in at No. 22.

Originally, the Bulls (20-5, 9-2) dropped from No. 25 in the poll to unranked after an 83-73 loss to Michigan State on Dec. 21. Their return to the Top 25 ends a five-week drought of not being ranked by AP, their longest since a five-week period at the beginning of the 2014-15 season.

“I’m really proud of this group,” coach Jose Fernandez said Sunday. “We move on. We have to have short-term memory and get ready for SMU, get ready to go across I-4 to Orlando next week. SMU’s going to come in here ready to compete.”

The Bulls will host SMU at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Sun Dome. Though the Mustangs (10-15, 4-8) shouldn’t pose much of a threat to bump USF out of the AP Top 25, USF’s last four games to close the season will be more of a challenge.  

After SMU, the Bulls travel to Orlando to face UCF (17-8, 9-3) on Sunday at noon. The Bulls beat UCF 62-45 in their meeting this season. However, the loss was the Knights’ only non-UConn conference loss of the season. They have since won six straight by an average of double-digit points, excluding a 55-37 loss to No. 1 UConn.

From Orlando, USF will then come home for games against Houston (19-7, 8-4) and Cincinnati (15-10, 7-5) on Feb. 21 and Feb. 24. Behind No. 1 UConn, No. 2 USF and No. 3 UCF, Cincinnati and Houston currently sit in fourth and fifth in the AAC’s standings. 

To close the season, USF will travel to Storrs, Connecticut to face No. 1 UConn, which routed the Bulls 100-49 in Tampa on Jan. 6. The Huskies (25-0, 12-0) haven’t lost a game all year, but could be put to the test if USF and its star guard, Kitja Laksa, replicates its play from Sunday’s win over Ohio State.

Laksa, who averages 20.2 points per game, scored 41 and came just three points shy of tying Shantia Grace’s single-game USF points record set in 2008. In her last game against the Huskies, however, Laksa was held scoreless after being put under constant pressure by UConn guard Kia Nurse. 

If she’s able to find open looks, as she did against Ohio State, however, Laksa has the ability to carry the Bulls to at least a close defeat as the team is  making a run at a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament, which would allow USF to host an NCAA Tournament game for the first time since the 2014-15 season.

“She’s (Laksa) a special player,” Fernandez said. “When she’s in a zone, she’s just as good as any scorer, shooter in the country. The big thing is she got really good looks. A lot of her looks were open looks and she knocked them down.”