New year, same high expectations for women’s basketball

The Bulls will look to defend their 2022-23 regular season title this season. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

The expectations for USF women’s basketball are the same entering every season – conference domination. However, this season’s path to victory will be different.

Former program linchpins guard Elena Tsineke and forward Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu – two of the Bulls’ top three scorers – graduated last year. 

Tsineke and Mendjiadeu averaged 17.9 and 16.5 points per game and were named 2022-23 AAC Co-Players of the Year. They were selected with back-to-back picks in the second round of the 2023 WNBA draft in March.

While recognizing the pivotal role the duo played in their success last season, Bulls coach Jose Fernandez will not have to look too far in the past to move forward.

“You lose two guys like [Tsineke and Mendjiadeu], two guys that went into the WNBA draft. Last year, we were sitting here asking ‘How are you going to replace four starters?” he said.

 “We did it and went 15-1 in the [AAC]. We showed over 16 nights we’re the best team,” he added.

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The Bulls were in a similar position last year as key players, such as forward Bethy Mununga and point guards Elisa Pinzan and Sydni Harvey also graduated in spring 2022.

This year, Fernandez said it would take the team’s “collective effort” to meet the expectations and replace the production of Tsineke and Mendjiadeu. 

It all starts with junior guard Sammie Puisis. She’s the Bulls’ top returning scorer, averaging 15.5 points per game in the 2022-23 season, and shot 38.7% from the three.

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She is one of 20 players named to the 2024 Ann Myers-Drysdale preseason watch list announced by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association on Monday.

Fernandez said the next step in evolving Puisis’ offensive skill set is for her to become a better ball handler.

“She needs to be able to create off the bounce her ball handling needs to improve [as well as] her finishing moves. So those were really the biggest things to take her game to the next level,” he said.

“So diversifying her game, where her [skillset] is gonna increase to have a great season but also prepare her for the next level.”

The Bulls will also rely on a group of five sophomore players to take on larger roles, highlighted by forward Carla Brito who was a 2022-23 all-freshman team selection.

Fernandez said sophomore guard Marina Asensio helps the team play with a faster tempo on offense.

“[Asensio] is gonna have to play more minutes… we’re going to need her to knock down shots. [She] has improved a lot defensively…we can play faster with her and she could knock down shots,” he said.

Another question heading into the year is how the team’s rebounding holds up this season. Fankam Mendjiadeu was responsible for a majority of the team’s rebounding last year, averaging 12.3.

However, Fernandez said this year will be more of a collective effort. He said the team has added more size in the frontcourt to help in that aspect. 

The preseason expectations will follow the Bulls all season long but Fernandez said his team is looking forward to getting back on the court.

“I think we’re in a good place. We can play tomorrow if need be. So I just got to try and do my best to keep this group focused and entertained for the next two weeks, as best as we can,” he said.