TAMPA - Say what you will about what this season has been like for USF women’s basketball. It’s not what people have expected. It’s not what Head Coach Jose Fernandez expected.
Any way you spin it, the Bulls continue to fight for the program, for their coach and for each other. It showed on Saturday night as the Bulls rode a 14-5 run in the fourth quarter to finish off Wichita State, 55-46, at the Yuengling Center.
Fernandez notched his 350th win as the Bulls’ coach, who is on the back half of his 19th season at the helm.
USF finished the first quarter on an 8-0 run to come out with an 11-7 lead, which the Bulls never gave back after that. Shae Leverett came out with 12 of her game-high 20 points in the second quarter, which ended up being a career-high for the sophomore.
Leverett also finished with 18 rebounds, a career-high, collecting her fourth double-double of the season.
“My teammates give me confidence,” Leverett said. “They’d find me, if I was rim-running, she [Tamara Henshaw] would find me inside, it was really a team-effort that showed up on my stats.”
The Bulls extended their lead to as much as 12 before the end of the first half - Wichita State cut it to nine on the strength of a three-pointer to end the period.
Wichita State jumped out to a 10-3 run to begin the third quarter, cutting the lead to two before Henshaw put in a bucket to extend the lead to four. The Shockers tied it at 41 to end the third.
For the third straight game, USF rode a really good fourth quarter to victory. Solid defense kept Wichita State off the scoreboard for the final 3:14, limiting it to just one field goal over its final ten attempts.
Saturday’s result pushed USF to its third three-game winning streak of the season, drawing the Bulls to just one win from .500 in American Athletic Conference play.
It was in large part to the play on the low block from Leverett and Henshaw. The duo combined for 30 of 51 USF rebounds, as the Bulls continue to prove why they’re tenth in the NCAA for rebounds per game.
“It’s a pretty good night,” Fernandez said. “At the beginning of the year, we had four post players averaging 15-16 minutes. That was our strength. But now, T[amara] and Shae have had to play a lot of those minutes. Getting 30 rebounds between both of them, that’s a special evening.”
The rebounding for the Bulls certainly hasn’t been an issue even after Alyssa Rader and Beatriz Jordao missed time with injuries. It’s been the practice that’s led to the results in Henshaw and Leverett.
“During the summer, we do a lot of ‘Gauntlet Fridays,’ so it’s a lot of getting rebounds out of our area, getting rebounds against 2-3 players, getting rebounds while getting hit,” Henshaw said.
That physical practice has been the key for Fernandez’ route to 350 and the key for USF staying competitive in AAC play down the stretch. A win against Houston, Cincinnati, UConn, or any one win in the AAC tournament will secure a winning season for the Bulls - a true testament to the coaching and hard work by everyone involved.
“My staff and I approach every game like it’s the last game of the year because every game is so important,” Fernandez said. “We’re still getting to know each other and who we are.”