USF brimming with confidence entering WCC Tournament 

This has been a season marked by growth for the USF women’s basketball team, and there was no greater evidence than a four-overtime loss to Gonzaga on Feb. 7 in front of a capacity crowd of 6,000 on the road. It was the longest game in West Coast Conference history.

“That was probably the best game we played as a team,” said Taylor Proctor, a 6-foot junior forward who leads the Dons with 15.8 points and 7.8 rebounds per game and was named first-team All-WCC on Tuesday. Proctor and the sixth-seeded Dons (17-12) face third-seeded Pacific on Thursday in the West Coast Conference Tournament in Las Vegas.

Though the Dons didn’t emerge with a win against the Zags, Proctor pointed to the way the bench stepped up — a theme that has continued through the end of the regular season. Proctor had fouled out just before the end of regulation. Taj Winston, a 5-10 senior who leads the league in steals, had been stretchered off midway through the second half following a vicious collision with Gonzaga forward Shelby Cheslek.

In the absence of its two mainstays, USF’s supporting cast emerged.

“I was speechless after that game,” Proctor said. “I’d never seen us work that hard. It showed how strong our bench is. Coming into the conference tournament, we know that if we play that hard, we can hang with anybody.”

Freshman wing Anna Seilund (a WCC-leading 45 percent from 3-point range) and senior Aundrea Gordon (40 percent from long range) have provided pinpoint marksmanship from deep, while freshman forward Michaela Rakova has developed into a dependable option in the low post on both ends of the court. They have helped offset the loss of sophomore Rachel Howard (9.3 points), who sustained a season-ending injury in early January.

USF lost its first four games of the conference season, a span that included a blowout at home to Pacific, followed by three road defeats, each by three points or less.

Rather than splinter, the Dons became cohesive.

“We had a team meeting, and we talked about communication, which I think is everything when it comes to winning,” Proctor said. “We want to be great, and it makes it easier when you can say anything to anyone, and they won’t take it personally.”

The Dons have won three of their last four, including a road sweep of St. Mary’s and Pacific on the final weekend of conference play and head into the WCC Tournament confident.

“We’re a strong team, and we want everyone to be scared to play us,” Proctor said.

After the Pacific win on Saturday, Azzi was quoted on the team website as saying, “I think more than anything, it’s important for our team to just go into the tournament relaxed and confident.”

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Matthew Snyder

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