Letters from Louk: The 2009 WNIT Championship

July 12, 2011

The voice of USF Athletics, Jim Louk, will routinely put down his radio headset and pick up the pen to share his perspective on the history of USF Athletics.

Louk has been broadcasting games for 27 years and is the resident historian in the Athletics Department hallways ... This week he remembers the 2009 WNIT Championship.

The 2009 WNIT Championship

The first steps toward a championship weren’t happy ones for the 2008-09 USF women’s basketball team. A 22-10 regular season had the Bulls thinking four letters at season’s end, and they weren’t “WNIT”.

They had beaten Iowa, Texas Tech, Rutgers, Syracuse, Cincinnati, Villanova and more. Many experts had the Bulls going to the NCAA Tournament.

Unfortunately, the experts that mattered did not.

Welcome to the WNIT.

WNIT Championship

Now, whether it be for pride, anger, or something in between, the Bulls needed to find a reason to keep playing at a high level. They’d need to overcome the hurt if they were going to keep their season alive.

Jasmine Wynne, who played 36 games for the Bulls as a freshman that year, remembers the NCAA selection show vividly. “It was very difficult sitting there with the seniors, knowing it was their last year. The look on their faces took a toll on me. Everyone had been saying we were in, we were in, and that’s what we were prepared for.”

“I was very concerned,” said Head Coach Jose Fernandez. “We took the approach that it was going to be a life lesson. Sometimes life doesn’t give you what you want. You’ve got to face challenges head on.”

WNIT bracket
WNIT bracket - click to enlarge

After a first round bye, those challenges started quickly. Florida Gulf Coast came to the Sun Dome for a round two game. “A good team with a quirky system, and a team that was thrilled to be there,” recalls Associate Head Coach Jeff Osterman.

Still working through the surprise at not being in the NCAA field, the Bulls were sluggish, and their head coach was alarmed. “I knew at halftime,” says Fernandez, “that our demeanor and our aggressiveness had to change or our season was going to be over.”

Led by some key plays by Wynne, the Bulls found a way, eking out an 88-81 overtime win and moving on to the next round. In retrospect, that narrow escape was one of the key moments of the tournament to Fernandez.

“We made some great plays down the stretch. I think everything turned around after we got that one.”

“The key was the first game, because of the resentment,” says Osterman. After not making the NCAA Tournament, “we knew we had talent to make a run, but the mental factor of getting over the first game was critical.”

Jasmine Wynne Shantia Grace Jose Fernandez
Jasmine Wynne Shantia Grace Coach Fernandez

With the win, USF earned another home game, against Mississippi. A strong SEC team challenged the Bulls, but by then Fernandez and his team had found their stride. “We defended and guarded and shot the ball well and took care of business at home,” he recalls. The final: 74-57 USF.

Two wins down and three to go.

Any coach or player that has been part of an NIT or WNIT tournament can tell you how tough it can be. If you hang in it for awhile, the games come quickly. It’s hard to prepare when you don’t know your next opponent, or where you will play.

In addition, the Bulls have an additional challenge. March is spring break time, and available airplane seats get harder to find. The WNIT is hesitant to try to fly too many teams in and out of Florida. So when the Bulls wrapped up the win against the Rebels, the coaches had an idea it was time to pack their bags.

“I think internally we knew we were staying on the road,” says Osterman. “We didn’t tell the kids, but I had a feeling we weren’t coming home.”

The Bulls figured a trip to Wisconsin was next. When St. Bonaventure pulled an upset over the Badgers, they got Olean, New York, instead.

In that scenic, small town in upstate New York, they managed to find a tough game in a lively and hostile environment. The arena was packed, and the Bulls walked out with a hard fought 80-66 win. “They had die-hard fans,” recalls Wynne, “but we just kept going one game at a time.”

“Once we got that one done,” Fernandez recalls, “everything just started to take care of itself.”

Porche Grant Jessica Lawson Jazmine Sepulveda
Porche Grant Jessica Lawson Jazmine Sepulveda

Next it was on to New England, for Boston College in the semi-finals. “Might have been 100 or 150 people in the stands,” according to Fernandez. In that much different atmosphere from Olean, the Bulls played a game of similar quality. The final was 82-65 USF, and it was on to the championship game.

Now only the Kansas Jayhawks and their historic arena stood between USF and the WNIT Championship. The road-weary Bulls hopped a plane from Boston to the Midwest for their third straight road game.

“You’d think the travel alone would take away the team’s energy,” said Garrett Walvoord, who called the games on radio for USF. “But every win made them stronger.”

The ball would be in the air at 1 p.m. on Saturday, April 4, 2009. USF was 40 minutes from a championship, but Kansas was 16-3 at home in the Allen Fieldhouse, and 11-0 against non-conference teams. Just a few days removed from playing in front of a handful of fans in Boston, the Bulls would now play in front of a Kansas record crowd of more than 16,000 on championship day.

Allen Fieldhouse

“I try to explain it to people,” says Fernandez. “When we went to shoot around, I knew it was going to be absolutely nuts in there. People were camping out. When we drove up to the arena for the game, there might have been 2,000 people waiting to get in. I would have never guessed it would be so loud in there.”

“No one really anticipated how loud the crowd would be,” says Osterman. “You couldn’t speak to the person next to you.”

“Someone could be two feet away from you and not hear a word you said,” says Wynne, “but we had been playing all season. We had a feel for how everyone played, and we went on instinct.”

At halftime in the Bulls’ locker room, Fernandez had trouble talking to his team because of the noise. “I kept asking the assistant coaches to close the door so we could hear. They said ‘coach, the door is closed’.”

The Bulls took the pressure in stride, leading most of the way and building a 12-point lead with five minutes left. Kansas narrowed it to one, before Jasmine Sepulveda hit a key baseline jumper. When it was over, the Bulls had won 75-71, capping a 27-win season with a 5-0 run in the WNIT. Teams from the SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Atlantic 10 had fallen at the hands of the Bulls.

The pain of not making the NCAA Tournament and the challenging travel made the accomplishment all the more special.

“Nobody could remember a visiting team cutting down the nets in that arena,” recalls Walvoord. “It was a great moment.”

Wynne, who is the only remaining active player from that team, calls the season the most fun she’s ever had.

“That bunch was very resilient,” says Osterman. “We could have stayed on the road and that team would have kept winning as long as they needed to.”

“There are only two teams that finish the year with a win,” says Fernandez. “We were one of them. We changed adversity and something that didn’t go our way and made it a really special thing.”

The 2009 WNIT Championship banner will hang in the new Sun Dome beginning early next year, a reminder of a unique cross country journey and a team that stands alone in USF Athletics history.

WNIT Championship


Jim Louk

Be sure to follow the Voice of the Bulls, Jim Louk, on Twitter at @USFjimlouk

Jim Louk   Jim Louk
  Voice of the USF Athletics since 1983
As the 2011-12 academic year rolls around, Jim Louk begins his 28th year in the athletics department at the University of South Florida and his fifth as Assistant Director of Athletics for Sales and Broadcasting.

Louk came to USF in 1983 as the radio play-by-play announcer for the Bulls’ men’s basketball team and served as the lead voice until the conclusion of the 1997 season. He then made the transition to football in USF’s inaugural 1997 season, and still serves as the team’s play-by-play announcer today. Louk will come into the 2010 football season having broadcast every Bulls’ game in their history – a span of 165 games.

Not only a contributor over the airwaves, Louk has also made his presence felt in getting other USF sports teams exposure on radio and television as well. Prior to the 2003-04 season only men’s basketball and football were consistently seen or heard in the Tampa Bay area. However, since then, men’s and women’s soccer, volleyball, women’s basketball, softball and baseball all make regular appearances on either radio, television or on the internet – via audio or video – with live streaming.

Truly the “Voice of USF Athletics,” in addition to men’s basketball and football, Louk has also frequently announced USF women’s basketball, baseball and softball games for both radio and television.

On the sales side, Louk heads up all season and group ticket sales for USF athletics while also overseeing a staff of three associates. The ticket sales team was part of a departmental sales effort that resulted in over 7 million dollars of USF game ticket sales in the 2009-10 academic year.

A native of Rochester, N.Y., Louk is a 1979 graduate of the University of Bridgeport where he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism.

Louk, his wife Barbara and their son Ross reside in Lutz.

05/14/10 - Fond & Funny Memories at Red McEwen Field
05/27/10 - Memories of Leagues Past
06/19/10 - Early Travel with the Bulls
06/23/10 - Home(s) of the Bulls
07/12/10 - 21 in a Row
08/25/10 - Bring Me the Head of Rocky the Bull
09/06/10 - Another Signature Win
09/15/10 - Happy 15th Birthday, USF Football
09/17/10 - Visit with Joe Lewkowicz
09/17/10 - Visit with Sherry Bedingfield
10/18/10 - The First Bowl Game
11/03/10 - Top 10 Wins in USF Football History
11/16/10 - 1990 Sun Belt Championship
11/23/10 - Visit with Dan Holcomb
11/30/10 - Visit with Kerine Black
12/02/10 - Visit with Ross Gload
12/10/10 - Let’s Just Get This Game Over With
12/16/10 - Jack's Back
01/19/11 - Way Out West for the NCAA Tournament
01/31/11 - The Best Road Trip Ever
02/10/11 - History of the NCAA Tournament in Tampa Bay
03/22/11 - Go For Broke - 1986 Baseball
04/12/11 - The Wild Ride of 2007
05/20/11 - The Best Unknown USF Team
06/01/11 - Remembering the O.G.
06/09/11 - Goodbye from an Old Friend
07/12/11 - The 2009 WNIT Championship
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