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