National powers to give USF early test

The Bulls hope tonight's games in Tampa prove they're a top program.

By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published November 15, 2007

TAMPA - For USF, tonight is an opportunity to show the Bulls belong.

In among three national powerhouses in Duke, Tennessee and Oklahoma, USF is eager to show itself to be more than just a gracious host in a national sneak preview of the Women's Final Four, which will be at the St. Pete Times Forum on April 6 and 8.

"We feel like we belong with anybody," junior Shantia Grace said. "We're a good team just like they are, and we're coming in prepared and knowing we can win."

USF coach Jose Fernandez, whose team just missed the NCAA Tournament and played in the Women's NIT last season, has consistently scheduled top-10 teams in addition to the challenges of playing in the Big East. The Bulls knocked off No. 11 DePaul two seasons ago and beat No. 15 Louisville by 16 points last spring, so USF's players can go into such a big game with confidence.

"It's good to go in as the underdog. Nobody expects anything from the underdog," center Jessica Lawson said. "We can step in the gym and run with anybody. We have the advantage because they don't know what we have. We have new faces, things like that. ... I feel like they'd better be ready for us."

USF has gone up against Duke coach Joanne McCallie each of the past two seasons, playing against her ranked Michigan State teams. It lost by a combined 23 points, but games against teams such as LSU, Vanderbilt and North Carolina have the Bulls familiar with elite competition.

"It's something we talk about every day in practice. The next step for our program is to be an NCAA team every year," Fernandez said. "We've positioned our kids, year in and year out, to play high-profile teams. There's a difference (between) playing high-profile teams and beating high-profile teams. Everything's about opportunity, and I think we're going to have a very good opportunity (tonight). It'll be a great atmosphere, and hopefully our kids have a lot of energy and enthusiasm. We're going to have to play sound basketball."

The other three teams, having made deep tournament runs with their current players, hope to return to Tampa for a bigger event in April. USF has enough confidence to hope for the same.

"Just playing on the Forum floor, we're getting a little experience playing on the floor, because we're going to be back there this year," Lawson said. "I feel like we're going to be contending for the Final Four."