March 29, 2014 11:25:07 PM
Jose Fernandez knows how difficult it is to change the culture and the mind-set in and surrounding a basketball program.
In the 10 seasons before Fernandez became head coach of the South Florida women's basketball team, the Bulls had only two winning seasons. Fernandez began the reconstruction in October 2000, when he was named interim head coach. Two months later, Fernandez was named head coach of a team that went on to finish 4-24 and 1-15 in Conference USA.
It took Fernandez three more seasons -- and plenty of ups and downs and injuries -- before he was able to guide USF to an appearance in the Women's National Invitation Tournament in 2004.
Ten seasons later, Fernandez has transformed the Bulls into a postseason regular. USF (22-12) has advanced to the postseason 10 out of the past 11 seasons, including two trips to the NCAA tournament (2005-06, 1012-13) and a WNIT championship (2008-09). USF will try to continue its latest postseason runs at 5 p.m. today when it takes on Mississippi State (22-13) in the quarterfinals of the WNIT at Humphrey Coliseum.
"This is a young group with only two seniors," Fernandez said. "We're very fortunate to still be playing basketball. We can't control what the committee members do in that room (when they are picking the at-large teams to the NCAA tournament). We're just making the best of it."
USF defeated North Carolina A&T (56-50), Stetson (75-56), and George Washington (74-59) at the Sun Dome, its home arena, to earn a date against MSU. The Bulldogs also have strung together three home victories (against Tulane, Southern Mississippi, and Auburn) to reach the final eight of the 64-team tournament. This is the first time MSU has won three consecutive postseason games in program history.
For USF, the postseason has become a familiar place thanks to Fernandez, who is from Miami, is in his 14th season as head coach at USF. He gained a variety of experience coaching men and women at community colleges, high schools, and senior colleges before being named assistant coach at USF in April 2000. He took over for head coach Jerry Ann Winters six months later and had used the relationships he built in the state of Florida to push the Bulls to prominence. USF competed in C-USA before moving to the Big East Conference in the 2005-06 season. This season, it finished third (13-5) in its first season in the American Athletic Conference. Unfortunately, the AAC received only two bids (Connecticut and Louisville) to the NCAA tournament.
Despite the fact USF has lost only five games in 2014 (three to Louisville, including one in the AAC tournament, and two to UConn), it failed to make the NCAA tournament. ESPN Bracketologist Charlie Creme had USF as one of its first four teams out of the field. Fernandez said the close call was the fourth time in the past eight years the Bulls have been on the wrong side of the bubble. This season, USF suffered a loss to Florida Gulf Coast without second-leading scorer Inga Orekhova, the team's second-leading scorer. She returned from a knee injury to play her first game back against No. 14 Oklahoma State (a loss). USF then lost to Middle Tennessee State, which also has a win against MSU this season, College of Charleston, and Rutgers in a stretch that likely cost it a chance at a NCAA tournament bid. USF regrouped, though, and beat Rutgers in its second regular-season meeting to finish ahead of the Scarlet Knights, who also are still alive in the WNIT, in the final AAC standings. Six of USF's losses have been by single digits, including a loss to nationally ranked Maryland in the season opener and an eight- and a four-point loss to Louisville.
Sophomore Caroline Williams, a 5-foot-8 guard, leads USF in scoring at 16.3 points per game. She also averages 7.6 rebounds per game. Orekhova. a 6-2 senior from Ukraine, averages 11.5 ppg., while 6-1 sophomore forward Alisa Jenkins has started all 34 games and averages 9.6 points and a team-high 10.2 rebounds per game. Eleven players average double-digit minutes, and 10 have started games this season for the Bulls.
Just as USF has had many different looks this season, Fernandez said the program has built its foundation a number of ways. He said the program has found recruiting success in the talent rich state of Florida while also picking its spots to sign foreign players, transfers, and players from other states. The Bulls have four foreign players, including Orekhova, and players from Ohio, Arkansas, and Georgia.
"The international deal has really helped us out tremendously," Fernandez said. "The players are coming to get more exposure and to develop as players and to get a free education."
Fernandez said the program signed two more foreigners in the early signing period and another in the late signing period. He said his program is just one of many across the nation that are mixing foreign players with ones from the United States to keep their program at a high level.
Early in his tenure, though, it was players like Ezria Parsons, a transfer from Auburn, and Jessica Dickson, a player from Ocala, Fla., who helped put the Bulls on the right path. Those two players were integral ingredients on the 2005-06 team that helped the program earn its first NCAA tournament bid. In 2012-13, USF beat Texas Tech for its first NCAA tournament victory before losing to California in OT. California advanced to the Final Four.
USF hoped to build on that momentum this season. The Bulls started the season just outside the top 25 rankings and then battled through injuries before righting the ship in the second half of the season to get back to the postseason. Even though his program isn't in the "Big Dance," Fernandez knows his players are hungry to win another championship and are ready to take the next step on the road. The following step could come on the road, too. The winner of today's game will play the winner of the Rutgers-Bowling Green game.
Fernandez knows that first step will be a tough one, though, especially considering it is against a coach like Vic Schaefer, who also has helped get MSU back on the postseason path.
"I think what Vic has done at Mississippi State is great," Fernandez said. "They have some really good players that we have to do a great job on, like Martha Alwal. First and foremost, we have to keep her off the glass and can't sit behind her. (Freshman forward) Breanna Richardson is a kid we really like. We recruited her. She is a kid who I think has her best basketball ahead of her. I think Kendra Grant is a kid who gives them a big lift offensively and defensively.
"I think it is going to be a good game. We're coming off three games at home and have beaten three top 100 RPI teams. We have gone on the road and played at Connecticut, at Rutgers, and SMU when they opened their arena, so it is not going to be any different (today) than what we have seen on the road. I think the game is going to come down to who rebounds better. The paint is going to be very, very important. Both teams defend really, really well."
NOTE: The first 700 MSU students will get a free ticket. The first 200 will get free pizza. Tickets are $8 for adults and $4 for students. WMXU-FM 106.1 will broadcast the game live. Live video and audio also will be available at www.HailState.com/HSTVLive.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.