Powering through another injury-filled season
It was late in the third quarter of what became an 88-39 blowout of Bethune-Cookman on Nov. 15, 2018.
Senior wing Kitija Laksa went down awkwardly trying to reach a transition pass — and stayed down.
You could hear a pin drop in the newly renamed Yuengling Center for the minutes — which felt like hours — the preseason All-American candidate was lying near the baseline until she eventually was helped off the court.
Laksa missed the rest of the season, and her injury basically spelled the end of the then-No. 21 Bulls’ NCAA Tournament hopes. Not because of how significant her loss was — though it was — but because it was the first of many more that led to USF suiting up as few as eight players most nights during conference play.
But the Bulls still won 19 games and made it to the second round of the WNIT. Laksa declined a medical redshirt for a fifth year, but coach Jose Fernandez put together arguably the best recruiting class in his two-decade tenure and had his team “reloaded,” as he tweeted over the summer.
Big things were expected, too. The Bulls received votes in both the AP and Coaches preseason polls and were picked to finish second in the AAC, behind usual favorite UConn.
Things were going well, even. The Bulls pulled off an upset of No. 15 Texas in the second game of the season and effectively took No. 2 Baylor to the wire in the fifth. USF cracked the top 25 in both polls after the Texas win and stayed in them for several weeks.
But it happened again.
Sophomore guard Sydni Harvey missed the first 10 games due to an undisclosed injury and redshirt sophomore forward Silvia Serrat went down with another lower body injury after missing all of 2017-18 and 2018-19 for similar reasons.
All that happened before the season. Harvey eventually returned and has started 12 of the 18 games she’s played in. Serrat medically retired earlier this month due to the constant injuries.
Since then, freshmen guards Mihaela Lazic and Maria Alvarez have gone down for the season, while sophomore point guard Elisa Pinzan, junior forward Bethy Mununga and freshman wing Kristyna Brabencova have all missed multiple games due to injury — Pinzan and Mununga going down in the same game, even (Dec. 6 vs. Alabama State).
“You definitely look at those first five games, and we’re definitely not the team that we were, but throughout the year, you just have to evolve,” Fernandez said. “Definitely, it’s not like what we went through last year. But it’s getting close to it.”
It’s actually eerily close. Four Bulls were lost for the season last year, with the final being senior wing Laura Ferreira before the UCF game Jan. 8. Three players are out for the year, with the most recent, Alvarez, coming Jan. 5, three days shy of the one-year anniversary of the first game the Bulls played without Ferreira.
In another similarity, sophomore guard Vanessa Blagmon requested her release days before last season tipped off due to a lack of playing time, or at least a concern of such in the preseason. Sophomore wing Luize Septe transferred for similar reasons prior to the Dec. 30 game against Brown.
As terrible an ordeal as last season was, it might have mitigated the damage this year.
Despite a rough nonconference stretch that saw USF win zero games away from Tampa until Jan. 16 at Temple, the Bulls are sitting at 17 wins with two games to play in the regular season, plus the conference tournament and a potential WNIT bid looming.
“As bad as it was at the time, it still helped us for this year, because a lot of guys got good minutes that we usually don’t get,” junior center Shae Leverett said. “Having that time and actually working on what we need to work on and then being able to bring the freshmen and help them out, that really helped us.
“So it was a positive and a negative.”
The Bulls clearly managed to navigate through worse last year. They’ve been able to do it this year as well.
“Same like it was last year. All we have is all we need,” Leverett said. “We’re going to just keep pushing no matter what. If we’ve only got eight people to dress out, we’re going to give our best and do our hardest we can with eight people no matter what.”