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By ROD GIPSON
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2001
TAMPA -- By the time the University of Tampa women's basketball team had captured the Sunshine State Conference title and advanced to the NCAA Division II regionals last season, coach Tom Mosca knew a problem loomed.
Mosca had to replace an important core of players that included Africa Gaston, Trysta Morenz, Heather LeVan, Chevara Smith and Antoinette Cole.
Certainly no one player would be counted on to help replace what those five contributed, but perhaps two could help. It was along those lines that led Mosca to bring in Nichole Blair and Yushonda Morse.
Blair and Morse were the nucleus of eight players Mosca recruited, and the results have been positive as UT is 18-8 overall and 8-6 in the conference.
"Nichole Blair and Yushonda Morse have added a lot to this program," Mosca said. "Yushonda has played better than anticipated. And Nichole has played well, but we're expecting more from her."
The regular season ended with a disappointing home loss to Eckerd on Wednesday. Instead of a No. 3 seed and possibly needing just one win at the conference tournament to receive a regional bid, the fifth-seeded Spartans might need to run the table to reach regional play.
Difficult, yes, but far from impossible, Blair and Morse said.
"It's hard when you lose like that, but we have to forget about it and be prepared to play," Blair said.
Morse echoed those sentiments but added the Spartans should remember some aspects of the Eckerd loss.
"We know we can beat any team we play," she said. "We've just had some concentration problems out there that have affected us like in (the Eckerd) game. We need to remember those so they don't happen again."
Regardless of what happens when UT opens the conference tournament against Barry at 2 p.m. Sunday at Florida Southern, Blair and Morse have been key, helping maintain UT's level of success.
Although Blair's output decreased during the second half of the season, the numbers do not lie. Both rank in the conference's top 10 in scoring. Morse averages 14 points a game while Blair averages 13.
A 5-foot-10 freshman forward from Fort Myers, Morse also was among the conference's top 10 in shooting percentage (sixth at .441) and rebounds (fifth at 8.2 per game). She led UT in scoring in eight games and posted three double-doubles.
"She a legitimate candidate for freshman of the year," Mosca said. "It's been great having her come in a play so well right away."
Morse shrugs off the success, adding that as a freshman, she still has a lot to learn.
"I think the season is going well, but being a freshman, I'm still very nervous," she said. "It's a different level. In high school, I was always one of the tallest girls. But now sometimes, I'm just a short post player."
Blair, meanwhile, had the seasoning of two years at junior college before joining the Spartans. Blair was a two-time conference player of the year at St. Petersburg Junior College. the junior college level as a swing player, averaging 18 points a game. At 5-11, the athletic Blair has topped 20 points four times this season and led the Spartans in scoring eight times. Blair said her recent slump could be a result of trying too hard, and she bounced back with 18 points at Rollins on Saturday.
"I have been in a funk lately, and I'm trying to keep my head up," she said after a 10-point effort against Eckerd. "We were really doing well early in the year, and then we had some losses. And that may have affected me. I just want to contribute and play better."