TAMPA — It was a strange week for the University of South Florida women’s basketball team.
“It was crazy not hearing that voice, yelling at us, telling us what to do,’’ USF sophomore guard Courtney Williams said. “Something was definitely missing.’’
USF coach Jose Fernandez spent five nights in the hospital after an allergic reaction to prescribed medication, part of his ongoing bout with diverticulitis, an inflammation in the wall of the large intestine.
He was released Friday and expects to coach today at the Sun Dome, when the Bulls (13-10, 8-4 American Athletic Conference) face the No. 1-ranked Connecticut Huskies (25-0, 12-0).
Other than their obvious concern for the condition of Fernandez, who couldn’t make the trip to Louisville on Feb. 2, USF players said they have tried to focus on the task at hand — and it’s a considerable one.
“It’s exciting to play the No. 1 team in the country,’’ Williams said. “I’ve been watching them since I was little. You can’t worry about what’s on their jerseys or their stats or their numbers. You know they’re going to make their runs. You can’t get discouraged. You have to keep fighting.’’
Actually, that has been the theme of USF’s season.
Expectations were heightened with the Bulls coming off an NCAA Tournament bid — and a second-round overtime defeat against eventual Final Four team California, which could’ve put USF in the Sweet 16 — but momentum couldn’t be recaptured.
USF was 5-6 in nonconference play and dropped its AAC opener against Rutgers. Since then, the Bulls have played much better, losing only against No. 5 Louisville (twice) and at UConn on Jan. 26.
The final score was deceptive — UConn 81, USF 53. The Bulls didn’t play poorly, but they were hit with a barrage of UConn 3-pointers (14 of 25), including six from Bria Hartley and five from Breanna Stewart.
“I think our players will look at this as an opportunity,’’ said USF assistant Michele Woods-Baxter, who has helped associate head coach Jeff Osterman run the team in Fernandez’s absence. “Most teams in the country would love to play UConn. We have that chance.
“Young players are sort of naïve. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing. They’ll go in with that mentality. Young players are a little more fearless.
“I think our young players have become veterans. Early on, it was sort of a deer in the headlights. We’re peaking at the right time. They’re ready to finish this out strong.’’
The Bulls have rebounded from the early loss of senior guard Inga Orekhova, who underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus Dec. 2 and missed two games. Her offense has picked up and she has made 22 consecutive free throws.
Meanwhile, sophomore forward Alisia Jenkins (9.6 points, 10.3 rebounds) has been a powerful force inside. Williams (15.7 points) is having a breakthrough season. And USF’s team defense has been a strength, limiting opponents to a 35.8 field-goal percentage.
“We’ve had our ups and downs, but everything happens for a reason and I think we’re in a good position,’’ Orekhova said.
“We need to dig deep and find that inner beast,’’ Jenkins said. “We’ve got to play every single game like it’s our last one. If every player does that, we can win, no matter who we’re playing.’’
LOGO UNVEILED: The official logo of the 2015 Women’s Final Four, to be held April 5 and 7, 2015 at the Forum in downtown Tampa, will be unveiled at halftime of the UConn-USF women’s game.
Prior to today’s game, USF, the NCAA and the Tampa Bay Sports Commission will host a Women’s Final Four Girls and Boys Kids Clinic at 1:30 p.m. in the Pam and Les Muma Basketball Center (connected to the Sun Dome). It’s open to the first 150 registrants (girls in the eighth grade or younger, boys in the sixth grade or younger).
Participants will receive one free ticket to UConn-USF and also serve as an honorary member of USF’s pregame, on-court tunnel team. To register, contact Claire Lessinger at (813) 342-4075 or [email protected]