By TOM ZEBOLD
USF Senior Writer
TAMPA - Head coach Jose Fernandez and his USF women's basketball team savored the sweet taste of success during the non-conference season but made a point of forgetting about it in quick fashion.
"You can throw that 11-2 (record) out the window because it's how you do in league play that matters," Fernandez said.
USF is determined to get back to the NCAA tournament and the Bulls could make a huge push in the right direction 7 p.m. Tuesday when they face No. 2 Notre Dame at the Sun Dome. The Irish (12-1) jumped up three spots in this week's Associated Press poll by handing the then-No. 1 Huskies a 73-72 loss Saturday in Connecticut.
"They have a lot of nice pieces," Fernandez said. "They were good last year and the year before, and went to the Final Four, but they're as good as they've ever been and that's a credit to coach (Muffet) McGraw and her coaching staff to really put those pieces together."
Only No. 1 Baylor has been able to solve the Irish so far this season and it took a monster game from Brittney Griner (24 points, 14 rebounds) combined with a 44-35 edge on the boards to help get the job done. USF's strength is on the perimeter but Fernandez said the Bulls' improvement close to the basket could be a huge difference maker Tuesday night.
"We're definitely in for a test. We're going to have to take care of the ball and we have to rebound, that's what it's going to come down to," he said. "There are some things that we do really well that could give them some trouble."
One aspect of the game that Notre Dame might not have seen much of yet is an opponent that gets much more than scoring out of the guard position. USF's 5-foot-8 twin sisters Andrell and Andrea Smith lead the team in scoring at more than 16 points per game and they also have the most rebounds on the squad with at least five per contest.
Fernandez knows the Smiths and the rest of the Bulls must be smart with the basketball to pull off an upset against a Notre Dame team that is second in the nation in scoring at 85.2 points per game. Much of that production has resulted from Notre Dame's ability to force 23.5 turnovers per contest.
"You have to take their transition away and you can't turn the ball over. There is a reason they're scoring so many points and part of it comes from turning the ball over," Fernandez said. "They're scoring off of turnovers and they're scoring off the glass. We have to slow them down and make them earn everything they're going to get."
Fernandez has been proud of the way USF has gotten to 11-2 despite being short-handed for much of the season. The Bulls may get a huge boost Tuesday by possibly getting two key players back in the mix.
Senior guard Kaneisha Saunders is probable to return after missing the past nine games with a sprained ankle. Senior forward Tahira Johnson also could be back after missing the past two games with an ankle injury.