This summer, the USF women's basketball team focused intently upon the number 13.
That's all that separated a very young Dons team from West Coast Conference powerhouse Gonzaga in last season's WCC tournament quarterfinals.
“We're thinking about that constantly,” said USF junior forward Taylor Proctor, who finished with 28 points and eight rebounds in the 81-68 loss. “That momentum has given us confidence going into the season. We're looking to start strong.”
That's certainly the way the Dons finished last season, when they rode a three-game win streak into that game with the Zags. Despite finishing 12-19 (6-12 WCC), the Dons feel ready for a surge in coach Jennifer Azzi's fifth season. Underclassmen started 85 games in 2013-14, and they lose just one player, sharpshooter Alexa Hardick.
“The players matured a lot toward the end of last season,” said Azzi, a former Stanford star. “That's what you want to see. As a coaching staff, we talk a lot about what you want to see as you build a program. At some point, it goes from us to them. It's their team, it's their program. Going into this fall, I feel like this is becoming their thing.”
The 6-foot Proctor (14.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists per game), so integral to the Dons' fortunes, has become one of the WCC's best players. She was named to the preseason all-conference team along with fellow junior Zhane Dikes (11.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists).
Rachel Howard (8.7 points) and Claudia Price, now sophomores, started last season strongly before fading in conference play. For Howard, who led the Dons in blocks (22), a facial injury sustained in late January stunted her momentum. After scoring 21 points in the Dons' comprehensive 87-69 exhibition win over St. Thomas of Miami on Saturday, she appears to have it back.
A strong freshman class is headlined by 5-3 roadrunner Tiara Tucker, whom Azzi calls a one-person press break.
“She's a tremendous talent,” Azzi said of Tucker, who finished her high school career as the state's 20th all-time leading scorer and is still returning to health from an offseason injury. “She can do a lot, and I know she'll be able to step in and help us.”
When Azzi took over on the Hilltop, she focused upon skill development. Now freshmen enter a culture where the likes of Proctor are always in the gym, working.
“It's fun to see how much we improved since last year,” Proctor said. “It's exciting to see our growth.”
Says Taj Winston (11.3 points, 5.4 rebounds), a senior who was part of Azzi's first full recruiting class: “We already know what we need to do. Now, we need to come into the season with that same mentality we had in the second half of last season. We have to start exactly the same way we finished.”