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Bulls set to bounce back after injury-plagued season

USF was hindered by injuries last season. ORACLE PHOTO/BRIAN HATTAB

Last season was not what USF women’s basketball was expecting. In the preseason, the Bulls were ranked No. 19 and expected to make a run in the NCAA Tournament.

Although the team made it to the second round of the Women’s NIT and finished the season with a winning record, the Bulls never finished at the heights they expected.

But it wasn’t a lack of motivation or talent that squashed their objectives.

It was an injury-ridden season that saw USF’s two seniors — Laura Ferreira and Kitija Laksa — out for the season early on. 

Their injuries forced some new, untested faces to play roles they didn’t imagine they would be forced to play. It was something unexpected for players like junior guard Enna Pehadzic.

Though that didn’t stop her from leading the team in scoring (422) and minutes played (986).

“But you know what, I worked hard in the gym and I just prepared for my opportunity to come,” Pehadzic said.

That sort of dedication and intensity in the face of adversity is something the Bulls are looking to translate to this season.

A key difference heading into Tuesday’s opener against Jacksonville is mostly everyone is physically able to play. A fully healthy squad is something the Bulls didn’t have the majority of last season.

“Well, the one thing I’m excited about is everyone is healthy, so that’s a good thing,” coach Jose Fernandez said.

USF was picked its usual second in the preseason AAC coaches poll, behind usual-favorite UConn. 

But it’s by no accident. 

Despite the events of last season, the Bulls are hoping they have everything it takes to push for an AAC title and make a run in the NCAA Tournament, according to Pehadzic.

“We want to go to an NCAA postseason, we want to go play for a conference championship,” Pehadzic said. “Our goal has never changed despite what had happened, and I feel like we have the right pieces to go and get what we want.”

There is an important role for everyone, according to Pehadzic.

“We have all the puzzles this year,” she said. “Everybody is a piece of the puzzle … we have to just keep working.”

The puzzle seems to have all the right pieces, as USF has significant depth entering the season, according to senior post player Tamara Henshaw.

“We have all kinds of threats on the floor now and we’re deep,” Henshaw said. “If one person is not having a good game we don’t always have to count on that one person. We have multiple people that can come out and have a big game.”

USF boasts experienced depth to its roster with six new additions. While five of the new players are freshmen, they boast experience at the international level. 

Only junior Bethy Mununga has collegiate experience, playing at junior college Northeastern Oklahoma A&M.

Freshmen Maria Alvarez, Mihaela Lazic, Elena Tsineke, Cristina Bermejo and Kristyna Brabencova may not have college experience, but they have played for their country or a club team.

A freshman class that boasts experience at a top level is a benefit for the Bulls.

“A lot of them are experienced,” Pehadzic said. “They played a lot of big games with their national teams and I feel like they all want to learn. They’re all staying in the gym working hard, so I feel like everybody is just hungry to get started.”

Teams like No. 2 Baylor and No. 16 Notre Dame, the champion and runner-up, respectively, of last season’s NCAA Tournament, wouldn’t be scheduled if the Bulls weren’t up to the challenge.

“Coach [Fernandez] never puts us in a position that he doesn’t think we can succeed in,” Henshaw said. “He gives us a great schedule because he knows that we have great people that came back and great people that came in.”

The current team is good, but the key to a successful season is making sure everyone stays healthy, according to Fernandez. Once that is achieved, all the puzzle pieces will find their place.

“We’re looking forward to this season,” Fernandez said. “The big thing is if we stay healthy, we’ve got a really good basketball team.”