Following a 20-win season and a finish in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament semifinal, the team’s first postseason appearance since 2012, the Owls have gained respect among the coaches in the American Athletic Conference in their third year.
This season, the Owls were picked third in The American’s coaches preseason poll behind Connecticut, the No. 1 team in the AP Top 25 Poll and defending NCAA Tournament champion, and No. 20 South Florida.
“It’s a credit to the work that we did last year,” coach Tonya Cardoza said. “But we can’t take that as where we’re going to finish.”
Cardoza’s squad went 4-9 in nonconference play last year. Temple will face Rutgers University and No. 7 Florida State University this season. The Owls lost to the Scarlet Knights 88-55 and the Seminoles 66-62 in consecutive games last season.
“Every nonconference game for us is important,” Cardoza said. “We played a lot of these teams last year, and we didn’t fare so well. I’m hoping with how we ended the season, we can start a little bit better than we did last year.”
The squad returns four starters from last year, losing guard Tyonna Williams to graduation. The team also added two freshmen and four transfer. The team’s total roster is 14 players, which is the most since the 2007-08 season.
“We don’t have scrubs on this team,” sophomore guard and transfer Donnaizha Fountain said. “We have the skill and the endurance to go longer now. We’ve finally got a rotation this year.”
The Owls lone senior is guard Erica Covile, who was second on the team in scoring with 11.4 points per game last season. The 6-foot-1-inch Detroit native was also recently named captain Nov. 4 following a team practice.
“It’s a bittersweet feeling,” Covile said. “But it’s exciting to be the only senior and the one with the most experience on the team. We were in the NIT Final Four last year, so there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be in the NCAA Tournament.”
Fountain and junior forward Ruth Sherrill will be active for the Owls this year after sitting out during the 2014-15 season due to NCAA transfer rules.
The team also added transfer Ugo Nwaigwe, a graduate center from Wagner College who has immediate eligibility this season. At Wagner in 2013-14, she was No. 4 in Division I with 3.8 blocked shots per game and the North East Conference Defensive Player of the Year.
The Owls, who allowed 65.2 points per game last year, are hoping the 6-foot-3-inch center, who was averaging 6.6 points and 6.2 rebounds for the Seahawks last season before leaving the team in December, will provide the Owls with a defensive boost around the rim.
“Ugo’s a hard worker, and she’s going to be a really good defensive stopper,” sophomore guard Alliya Butts said. “She’s also going to be able to look to score sometimes, too.”
During the offseason, Cardoza stressed capitalizing on turnovers and protecting under the basket. Opponents outrebounded the Owls 19 times last season, including 11 times in conference play.
“A big concern for us now is on the defensive side and making sure that we’re all in sync communicating with each other trying to do the best job,” Cardoza said. “I feel like if we’re a better defensive team, we’re going to have a really good season.”
Cardoza said the Owls, who have not reached the NCAA Tournament since the 2011-12 season, believe if they win more games in nonconference play this season, an invitation to the tournament will come.
“We don’t want to get in a situation at the end of the year where someone is wondering whether to put us in [the NCAA tournament],” Cardoza said. “We want to make sure that we handle our business so that when it’s time for that, we’re a no-brainer.”
Mark McCormick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MarkJMcCormick.