Auriemma sym­pa­thizes with in­jury-rid­dled USF

The News-Times - - SPORTS - By Doug Bon­jour dbon­[email protected]­post.com; @DougBon­jour

STORRS — They were once a Top-20 team pos­sess­ing more tal­ent than any­one in the Amer­i­can Ath­letic Con­fer­ence out­side of UConn. Now, two months later, they’re an in­juryrid­dled shell of their for­mer self.

Such is the sad re­al­ity for South Florida.

The Bulls, who were ranked as high as No. 17 in the As­so­ci­ated Press poll, have watched their sea­son crum­ble un­der a moun­tain of mis­for­tune. As such, they’ll be with­out three of their top four scor­ers when they visit No. 3 UConn on Sun­day (1 p.m. in Storrs).

Guard Ki­tija Laksa (knee), a two-time All-AAC pick and All-Amer­i­can can­di­date, and Beat­riz Jor­dao (foot) are done for the year with in­juries. Wing Laura Fer­reira is side­lined in­def­i­nitely due to an uniden­ti­fied ill­ness.

“No­body wants to see any­body go through some­thing like this,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said Fri­day be­fore prac­tice at Gam­pel Pavil­ion.

For as much as the Huskies have had their way with the rest of the AAC since 2013-14, win­ning all 103 con­fer­ence games, in­clud­ing 102 by dou­ble-digit mar­gins, Auriemma’s al­ways ap­pre­ci­ated USF’s com­pet­i­tive­ness. The Bulls, who played — and ul­ti­mately lost to — UConn in the last four AAC fi­nals, of­fered the con­fer­ence — one crit­i­cized with reg­u­lar­ity be­cause of its lack of tra­di­tion and high-level pro­grams — a sliver of cred­i­bil­ity as a ranked program. But now, due to a wave of ail­ments, they can’t even lay claim to that.

“I know how trau­matic it can be to lose your best player, lose a key player, from a re­ally, re­ally good team,” he said. “I think they’re start­ing to fig­ure out what life after Ki­tija was go­ing to be like, get­ting a han­dle on it. And then it just piles on.

“I think the lat­est one (Fer­reira), I think that prob­a­bly hurt more than any­thing else be­cause it just came on top of what had already hap­pened. Hope­fully, they can fig­ure it out. That’s a lot of playing time for a lot of kids that weren’t go­ing to play a lot. Maybe that bodes well for the fu­ture, but that doesn’t make things any eas­ier right now.”

Fer­reira, who was av­er­ag­ing 15.8 points and 4.9 re­bounds through 15 games, missed the Bulls’

62-49 loss to UCF on Tuesday due to ill­ness. Her ab­sence leaves the Bulls

(10-6, 1-1), who were picked second in the AAC pre­sea­son poll, with just nine schol­ar­ship play­ers, in­clud­ing five fresh­men.

Auriemma, who has needed to go out­side the league to find chal­lenges, wishes the sit­u­a­tion could’ve been dif­fer­ent.

“We’ve al­ways some great games with them, re­gard­less of the fact we’ve won them all,” Auriemma said. “There’s al­ways an el­e­ment of com­pet­i­tive­ness. You al­ways want to be playing teams that are at their best. You play teams that are short-handed, the wins still mat­ter and they still go on your record and all that but … kids are com­peti­tors, they want to com­pete.”

“That game is al­ways kind of a big game for us,” UConn se­nior Katie Lou Sa­muel­son added. “This is the first year, they’re down some peo­ple. We’re go­ing to use it to make our­selves bet­ter.”

⏩ Dou­ble-dou­ble threat: Sa­muel­son has paced the Huskies of­fen­sively this sea­son, av­er­ag­ing 19.6 points. On top of that, the

6-foot-3 guard’s also pulling down a ca­reer-best 8.3 re­bounds per game, second on the team be­hind Napheesa Col­lier.

“I think since I’ve started re­bound­ing, it’s been eas­ier for kind of peo­ple to get out there and out in tran­si­tion,” she said. “If I can help the team and I can re­bound, then I’m go­ing to keep do­ing it.”

Sa­muel­son put the onus on her­self to be more than just a scorer after two of the team’s best re­bound­ers, Azura Stevens and Gabby Wil­liams, de­parted this past off­sea­son. She already has five dou­ble-dou­bles after record­ing just one over her first three sea­sons.

“It’s kind of a joke, I feel like, since my fresh­man year that I don’t re­bound at all,” Sa­muel­son said Wed­nes­day, fol­low­ing her 23point, 10-re­bound performance in an 82-38 rout of Cincin­nati. “I think (coach Geno Auriemma) said one time I got one more than a dead per­son be­cause I had one re­bound. Now, I kind of want to em­pha­size it and try to do as much as I can — just a lit­tle dig at him.”

Jes­sica Hill / AP

South Florida's Jose Fer­nan­dez, left, and UConn’s Geno Auriemma, right, pose be­fore a game on Jan. 10 in Hartford.

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