There is a saying written in cherry letters on a wall in the team’s practice facility that reads: “Play Hard, Practice Harder.”
The Owls (15-3, 6-0 The American) are on an 11-game winning streak and haven’t lost a game since Dec. 7. Their gameplay has influenced their practices and vice versa.
“In the gym, in practice now, we’re going harder because we know where we can go with this,” junior guard Donnaizha Fountain said. “I feel like everyone’s confidence is now where it should be, where it deserves to be. We’re a team that works hard, so for our record to show that, it actually motivates us to get better.”
Temple began its season with a 4-3 record in its first seven games. For a team returning four starters who all averaged more than 10 points per game, it was not the start they had anticipated.
Senior center Safiya Martin said the early-season losses, two of which were against teams ranked lower in the Ratings Percentage Index than the Owls, may have led to a stronger desire to win.
“We had a few slip-ups in the beginning of the season, but maybe that’s what we needed,” Martin said. “A little humbling just to see where we are and maybe just to bring us down a little, humble us.”
Fountain said the beginning of the season led to a “humble but hungry” attitude for the Owls. This mindset has helped Temple win 11 consecutive games and receive national attention for its winning record. Temple received 13 votes in Monday’s Associated Press Top 25 poll. The team is also No. 33 in the RPI.
Even with much attention focused on the streak and the rankings, the Owls are more concerned with achieving their ultimate goal: reaching the NCAA tournament. ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme has the Owls as a No. 8 seed in his latest bracket projection.
“As long as we beat the teams we are supposed to beat and kill the teams we are supposed to kill, I think we’ll be fine,” Fountain said. “Of course, someone else has the last say of who makes the tournament or not, but as long as we prove and build our case, as I call it, building our resume, I think we’ll get the job, which is going to the tournament.”
The Owls defeated a ranked nonconference team for the first time since 2007 with their 84-74 win against DePaul University, which was ranked 17th at the time.
The 11-game streak is the Owls’ longest since their 14-game streak in the 2011-12 season. The team’s all-time record is its 25-game streak during the 2004-05 season, when the Owls advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
“You know, it’s something that we’re aware of, but we don’t talk about it with them,” coach Tonya Cardoza said. “I’m just excited that we’re trying to find a way to play good basketball no matter what.”
Part of playing good basketball is having trust in teammates, Fountain said. Temple has strength at every position on the court. Senior forward Ruth Sherrill averages 7.4 rebounds per game and adds 5.5 points. Junior guard Tanaya Atkinson averages 8.1 rebounds per game and scores in double figures.
Temple has lots of scoring options, as four Owls average double digits. Senior guard Feyonda Fitzgerald has been the go-to scorer at 18.4 points per game. When Fitzgerald is out of the game, the Owls can also look to junior guard Alliya Butts or Fountain.
“That’s a thing that’s good about our team, is you’ve got to figure out who’s going to have the hot hand tonight,” Fountain said. “It could be Fey, it could be Butts, it could be Atkinson, it could be Sherrill, it could be Fountain. It’s not so much of stepping up as it is doing what needs to be done to complete the ultimate goal, which is to win.”
In addition to the other feats the Owls have accomplished so far, Temple boasts an undefeated American Athletic Conference record. After Wednesday’s Big 5 matchup against the University of Pennsylvania, the Owls will play ranked conference opponents South Florida and Connecticut on Jan. 29 and Feb. 1. They know every conference game will be a battle.
“We’re still not perfect,” Fountain said. “We need to get better on defense. That’s our main thing right now. That’s what I would change, just being more in sync and getting better on defense. We work on it every day in practice.”
“We can’t get complacent with where we are,” Martin said. “We know nothing’s going to be handed to us and the fact that we are undefeated means that teams are going to want to beat us even more, so we can’t just be okay with where we are, but know where we want to get to.”
Maura Razanauskas can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @CaptainAMAURAca.