Although she’s listed at 6-foot-1, Alisia Jenkins walks onto the court for the South Florida women’s basketball team knowing her job as primary rebounder will be tougher than it seems.
In truth, she’s not quite a 6-footer. While that’s tall for the general population, Jenkins has to ply her trade for the Bulls without the advantage of pure heft to get the position she needs. But with unusual determination, she’s a factor where all the dirty work is done, racking up 23 games with double figures in points and rebounds last season.
The same capacity to play above expectations lives within the South Florida program as a whole, with the Bulls emerging as a top 20 program behind a talented international roster and the coaching touch of Jose Fernandez. As recently as 2010-11, South Florida was a modest 12-19 overall, but on the heels of going 27-8 last year, the team is comfortable with envisioning a deep run in the 2016 NCAA Tournament.
It’s the best remedy for the burning frustration with how last season ended. Earning the right to play on their home floor, the Bulls won their first-round NCAA game against LSU and had a one-point lead with about 3:30 to go against Louisville in Round 2 before misfiring late and losing by eight points.
“I really reflected on the Louisville game – what could we have done better?” said Jenkins, a senior who should break the school’s all-time rebounding mark about a dozen games into this year’s schedule. “And what could I have done differently? I put all of that into the work I did this summer. We have to be more aggressive; we weren’t aggressive enough against Louisville.
“Team-wise, we want to get past that second round and get all the way to the Final Four. For me, I really want to get the school rebounding record, continue to lead the (American Athletic) Conference in rebounds, and lead the nation in double-doubles. When it’s all said and done, I hope to get drafted, or I’ll go play overseas.”
Speaking of other continents, that’s another notable element to the Bulls. They have seven players on the roster who hail from other countries (Denmark, Kenya, Latvia, Portugal and Spain), and the Latvian freshman, Kitija Laksa, could easily be an all-conference honoree by season’s end. Crossing the border and the ocean is something Fernandez has done from the beginning, when his first year (2000-01) closed at a sobering 4-24 overall.
“We’ve always had an international presence, and have brought in kids from all over the world. Our style of play and the success we’ve had with previous players has helped in that,” said Fernandez, who got a contract extension after last season but turned around and used the funds to endow a scholarship. “They are mature and have played against older competition. There’s no comparison as far as teaching at the grass-roots level – we have more athleticism and more basketball talent, but as far as fundamental skill level and the coaching, the international game does a better job developing players.”
South Florida’s more home-grown weapons include senior guard Courtney Williams, who lead the AAC in scoring last year at 20.3 points per game and was on last summer’s USA Basketball team that claimed a gold medal in South Korea. At 5-8, Williams scored a school-record 710 points on the season; she’s also a force on the boards, averaging 7.5 rebounds per game.
With a veteran squad that has talent bursting at the seams, Fernandez did the early work of getting people accustomed to their roles. The team took a 12-day trip to Spain, playing four games there and getting gin 10 practices before the journey.
So with the roster settling into place, and both Jenkins and Williams determined to close their careers on a high note, the Bulls will be no fun to face in the weeks ahead.
“This is their last go-round, their final years, and they both had very good off-seasons,” added Fernandez, whose teams are 72-32 over the past three seasons. “It was uncharacteristic how last year ended, because we were in a lot of close games. But Louisville – we didn’t close it out. We know how every possession is important, both ends of the floor, and ow the last two or three minutes are magnified.”