Hunger, friendship drive return of Bulls’ super seniors
Walking through the USF women’s basketball practice facility in the Les and Pam Muma Basketball Center, above the noise of squeaking sneakers and balls dribbling on the hardwood, the presence of seniors Shae Leverett and Bethy Mununga stand out.
As the program’s two “super seniors,” a term used for players given an extra senior season due to the pandemic, they command the attention and respect of their teammates whether they’re on the court or the sideline.
Both Leverett and Mununga were faced with the choice of ending their college careers to turn pro or running it back at the end of last season.
Coming off a season in which they helped lead the program to unprecedented heights, winning the first conference titles in team history, the main reasons for their return was hunger and winning.
“We are regular-season champions, we won the conference, went to the NCAA tournament and it got me more hungry,” Mununga said. “And I was like ‘Man, we did all that during the COVID period.’ What about next year?”
Leverett has been with the program since 2016 and is going into her sixth year. During her time with the team she has become an anchor on the defensive end of the floor.
Mununga is entering her third year with the Bulls after transferring from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College, where she was a two-time NJCAA All-American.
A starter from day one, she’s become known for her energy and effort on the glass, leading the conference in rebounding last season and making first team All-AAC.
“To have both of them back, not only for their basketball ability, but their leadership and camaraderie with this team, to have them come back is huge for us,” associate head coach Michele Woods-Baxter said.
While last season ultimately ended in a frustrating defeat to NC State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the disappointment eventually turned into a burning fire for the two seniors.
The taste of success left Mununga and Leverett wanting more, a desire to create more firsts for a program that continues to reach new heights year after year.
“They’re the first two now to ever win the conference, because UConn is not in it, to win the tournament and now it’s like, ‘OK, let’s get to the Sweet 16, let’s get to the Elite Eight,’” Woods-Baxter said. “And they looked around and they looked at our pieces and who we got coming back and they’re like, ‘you know what, we can do this.’”
Dedication to raising the bar is nothing new for those that have been acclimated to USF’s and coach Jose Fernandez’s culture. Leverett, who’s entering her sixth year with the team, knows that better than anyone.
A member of three teams that made the NCAA Tournament, she’s learned from the stars of the past that the expectation is always to take the team to the next level.
“Just from like the past leaders here on the team with Maria [Jespersen], Laia [Flores], Laura [Ferreira] and them, what they instilled in me in finally winning it was like OK we’ve done this, now we need to set the bar higher,” Leverett said. “When they set a goal they always pushed me, the team to go even further.
“We accomplished this goal, let’s see if we can do even better now that we know we can make it and go to the next level.”
Not to be underestimated as a reason for their return Mununga and Leverett have also developed a great relationship during their time together.
As teammates, their relationship often involves a lot of arguing on the court, but it stems from a common competitiveness that drives one another to success and an elevated level of play.
Off the court, however, the two have formed a sister-like relationship that has given each other a strong support system and a bond that will last long after their time in school is up.
“Everyone knows she’s like a sister,” Leverett said. “If you see us playing on the court, we’re probably going at each other’s heads and everybody probably thinks we hate each other. But then as soon as we’re done playing we’re like busting out laughing. Like I said, little sisters, you have to keep them in check.
“We’re there for each other, on and off the court, we help support each other. She thinks she’s going to get rid of me after this year but I’m going to come and follow her over there in Europe.”