TAMPA – When the University of South Florida women's basketball team earned the program's second NCAA tournament bid last season — a victory against Texas Tech, followed by a heartbreaking overtime loss against California — the Bulls could have been well-pleased with that finish.
USF coach Jose Fernandez didn't want to hear it.
In fact, when players returned to campus, they noticed an inspirational sign outside Fernandez's office. It pointed out a destination: Nashville, Tenn., site of the 2014 Women's Final Four.
“People might think that's a pretty lofty goal for a team that just won its first NCAA tournament game,'' Fernandez said. “But you can't be satisfied. You have to change the mindset. We have changed the mindset.''
And that continues with tonight's season opener at the Sun Dome, when the Bulls challenge the No. 8-ranked Maryland Terrapins.
“These are the kind of games you need for national attention,'' USF senior guard Inga Orekhova said. “To take the next step, these are the kind of games we need to win.''
USF defeated No. 11 DePaul in 2005. Last season's NCAA run was fueled by victories against No. 12 Louisville and No. 18 Syracuse.
The Bulls received a single vote in the Associated Press preseason top 25, but were ranked No. 30 in the USA Today coaches poll.
“I'd vote for us,'' said Fernandez, who is, in fact, a voter in the USA Today poll. “I think we're deserving of recognition. Now we have to win games. We have to live up to that. It's all part of it.
“We have more depth than we've ever had. There are different ways we can play. It's going to be fun.''
Fernandez has guided USF to nine postseason appearances in the past 10 seasons, including the WNIT championship in 2009, but last year was the most rewarding experience of all. The Bulls defeated Texas Tech 71-70 in an NCAA first-rounder – at Lubbock, Texas, no less – then erased a 14-point second-half deficit against California, only to fall 82-78 in overtime.
“We were very sad,'' USF sophomore forward Alisia Jenkins said. “We could've beaten that team. It makes you want to go back and get even deeper into the tournament, which we definitely know we can accomplish.''
USF's strong recruiting class and three returning starters provide all the confidence needed by Fernandez. Depth is the biggest difference, but there's also a potential game-changer in former Boca Ciega player Tamara Thomas, a junior-college All-American.
“In the past, sometimes we've had to use some players a lot more minutes than we would've liked,'' Fernandez said. “They had to play winded and tired because we didn't have anyone behind them. Now they don't need to play 35 minutes in a game. We can use them for 27 quality minutes.''
“The competition is amazing and every practice is a battle,'' Orekhova said. “But to me, it's not about who starts or who finishes. It's about the wins and losses for all of us. It's about winning games.''
If the Bulls win tonight, it would be the biggest regular-season victory in program history.
“I'm very excited,'' Orekhova said. “We have to prove ourselves. It will be hard, but we have a chance to really boost up our power and energy. Why not start off this way? These are the kind of games we belong in.''