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OPINION: USF women’s basketball has success year after year even after losing key players

USF women's basketball has become a model NCAA program for how to replace talent each season. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/GOUSFBULLS

The success USF women’s basketball has had the past two decades is amazing.

A program that was irrelevant for years — USF had never made a postseason appearance prior to coach Jose Fernandez taking over in 2000 — is now one of the model programs in women’s college basketball.

But, what’s really amazing is how the program is able to keep its winning ways, even when it loses key players.

Heading into this season, USF lost its winningest senior class in Maria Jespersen and Laia Flores. Last season, Jespersen led the AAC with 18 double-doubles and Flores set the program record for single-season assists with 214.

Because of the departures, USF is having freshmen eat up a lot of minutes early in the season, which is usually a recipe for growing pains.

Yet, the Bulls are 3-0, and none of the games have even been close.

USF defeated defending Big Ten champion Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio 71-47 to open the season. The aforementioned freshmen did well in a tough matchup. Sydni Harvey finished with 16 points in her collegiate debut, while Beatriz Jordao collected a double-double with 17 points and 10 rebounds.

If you think that’s an impressive start to a season — which you should, because it was — the second game was even more impressive. USF slaughtered Albany 74-37. Redshirt senior Laura Ferreira scored 21 points while junior Alyssa Rader collected 12 rebounds.

USF knocked off Bethune-Cookman 88-39 on Thursday, keeping its hot start going. Jordao shined again, scoring 10 points and collecting eight rebounds.

Heading into this season, it was fair to wonder what this team was capable of doing after losing such key players like Jespersen and Flores. True, perennial All-American Kitija Laksa was returning, as were Rader and Ferreira.

But, this start has to exceed even the most optimistic of preseason projections.

Fernandez's ability to recruit and keep the pipeline of talent running through the Yuengling Center is impressive. His ability to get the most out of young players who are far away from home for possibly the first time in their lives may only be matched by UConn coach Geno Auriemma.

Even with Auriemma considered, Fernandez may still win that category. UConn’s roster is made up entirely of Americans, while Fernandez’s roster contains only five star-spangled Bulls. Most of Fernandez’s players are not just far away from home — they’re really far away from home.

Yet they’re thriving in Tampa.

“We knew what those three kids [Harvey, Jordao and Enna Pinzan] were going to bring,” Fernandez said. “It’s invaluable experience, especially going now into this stretch of four very important games that we’re going into.”

That tough stretch begins with a date with Oklahoma on Sunday at the Yuengling Center at 2 p.m., then continues with a trip to the Virgin Islands to take on Kentucky, North Carolina and UCLA over the Thanksgiving break.

It won’t be easy — especially since USF will be without Laksa, who will miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL and meniscus after sustaining the injuries during Thursday’s game against Bethune-Cookman.

But the Bulls will find a way to shine.

They always do, year-in and year-out.