Tampa Bay Sports Day

USF’s Winning Recipe Has International Flavor

Photo by USF BULLS

By TOM ZEBOLD

USF Athletics

TAMPA, FLA. – Jose Fernandez is on a globetrotting mission in the name of USF women’s basketball, which continues to be a fruitful recruiting venture for the Bulls.

Last season was a prime example with a total of eight international players on a 15-person roster that helped the Bulls advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive season.

“The international players have been a big part of our program and the way we play,” Fernandez said. “We’ve had several impactful student-athletes over the last several years.”

USF has posted four consecutive 20-win seasons and the amount of international talent has grown with each of those seasons. Fernandez had three foreign players on his 2012-13 squad that went 22-11. With eight, USF was one international player shy of the national lead among all FBS programs last season while going 24-10 and making The American’s championship game for the second straight time.

“I think one benefit is we have an influx of international players,” Fernandez said. “The game has really evolved around the world and you see that impact at the professional level.”

Guard Inga Orekhova (Ukraine) made a big splash in the States from 2011-2014 with 218 3-pointers, a total that ranks second in USF’s history books. Orekhova became the 18th overall selection in the 2014 WNBA Draft and more international stars have emerged since then at USF.

With a keen eye for sharp-shooters, Fernandez made another very wise recruiting choice by signing forward Kitija Laksa prior to last season. The unanimous American Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year led the league with 74 3-pointers and averaged 12.6 points in her dazzling debut as USF’s second-leading scorer.

Laksa is one of nine international players on USF’s current roster that includes forwards Laura Ferreira (Portugal), Maria Jespersen (Denmark) and Dorottya Nagy (Hungary). Laia Flores recently helped Spain’s U20 team defend its title at the European Championship and USF has more international flavor at guard with Ariadna Pujol (Spain), Nachalie De Jesus (Puerto Rico) and Enna Pehadzic (Denmark). Nancy Warioba (Kenya) returns for her senior season at center.

“The most important aspect of international recruiting is finding the right kid,” Fernandez said. “If we find the right one, it’s the same as getting a blue-chip recruit in the U.S. You have to make the commitment.”

Fernandez’s dedication to finding winning pieces has taken him quite a ways from Tampa. The FIBA World Championship and European Championships have been go-to spots for Fernandez the past four summers and USF coaches travel abroad four or five times a year.

“It’s so important for them to see us there watching in person because then they know we’re serious and committed to their potential at USF,” Fernandez said. “We are committed to go see them play and we want to meet their family. We want to know their interests outside of the sport because ultimately we want them to be successful at USF, on and off the court.”

July is a very busy month for Fernandez, who tirelessly evaluates talent at the World and European Championships. In September, Fernandez will be accompanied by assistant Michelle Woods-Baxter for school and home visits overseas.

Fernandez has been impressed with the education system in Europe and the strong work ethic international student-athletes bring to the table. Members of the women’s basketball team helped USF Athletics set a program record in 2015-16 with a combined annual grade-point average of 3.085.

“They bring a different perspective to the game, even down to strength and conditioning,” Fernandez said. “It’s all different pieces to the puzzle and I think it’s a great piece to add to our American athletes. When you see them interact in the locker room or at dinner, it’s inspiring to see people from all over the world unite for one common goal.”

The Bulls return eight players from last season, and have signed six newcomers to the roster. American Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year Kitija Laksa will lead a squad full of international flavor that boasts nine players from around the world. USF will look to extend its postseason streak to five consecutive seasons and return to the conference championship for the third time in as many years.

USF has made 12 postseason tournament appearances and had four NCAA Tournament berths in Head Coach Jose Fernandez’s 16 seasons. The all-time winningest coach in program history, Fernandez has guided USF to seven 20-win seasons, two WNIT final four appearances, the 2009 WNIT championship and won more than 280 games.