The story was different this year.
This time, the women’s basketball team was the underdog in the Atlantic Ten Conference. But, with a ruthless tear through the league, the Owls (19-11, 12-2 A-10) managed to have a familiar regular season conclusion. Heading into this weekend’s A-10 Tournament, the Owls have the No. 1 seed and this time, it couldn’t be any sweeter.
“It feels great, because no one in the A-10 or anybody else gave us a shot at where we are today,” coach Dawn Staley said. “I’m very proud of our basketball team for fighting through a tough season. We played a very tough non-conference schedule, and it really paid off when we got into the A-10.”
Picked to finish fourth in the A-10 at the beginning of the season, the Owls climbed to the top of the conference, thanks in part to a battle-tested group of maturing players. This season’s non-conference schedule was heavily weighted with nationally ranked powerhouses, including Duke, Maryland and Rutgers.
“The only way that you’re going to get better throughout the course of a season is you got to measure yourself,” Staley said. “Was it a tough non-conference schedule? Yeah, yeah it was. We took our hits, but we learned from it. People grew up, everybody got better and improved. This is kind of how you want your season to end, better than what people expected.”
The top four seeds in the 12-team tournament will receive first round byes. Behind Temple is No. 2-seeded George Washington (24-5, 12-2), the No. 13-ranked team in the nation that entered last season’s tournament as the top seed. Despite identical conference records, the Owls won the tiebreaker as a result of a memorable, 68-66 win over the Colonials on Jan. 19. Rounding out the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds will be Xavier (21-8, 11-3) and Charlotte (18-12, 9-5), respectively.
A year ago it was a somewhat surprising third-seeded Xavier team that won it all. They took out the second-seeded Owls before beating George Washington in the finals.
The 2008 tournament begins Friday, March 7, at Saint Joseph’s Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse. The Owls’ first game will pit them against either Richmond (13-18, 6-8) or Duquesne (15-14, 6-8). They defeated both teams earlier in the season.
Two luxuries will favor the Owls this weekend. First, they can be certain that they will not encounter Xavier or George Washington until Monday’s championship game. Second, a first round bye gives the Owls more time for preparation and relaxation.
“We play [senior guard] Ashley [Morris] a whole lot of minutes, we play our starters a whole lot of minutes, so in order for us to really hone in on winning another Atlantic 10 championship, you’re going to have to rest up,” Staley said. “It’s just very hard on anybody to play four games in a row.”
The chances for another conference championship banner to hang in the Liacouras Center and a spot in the 2008 NCAA Tournament are up for grabs. The Owls have won the A-10 tournament three of the last four years, and have reached the NCAA tournament in the last four seasons.
This season’s early setbacks have made the Owls mentally stronger. They have proven to be an enviable squad even without the mystique of All-American candidates such as Candice Dupree and Kamesha Hairston.
“We didn’t have [an] All-American on our team, or any of that,” Morris said. “We just had a group of girls that wanted to win and I think that helped us get through the season.”
The Owls look to continue writing the pages of their 2007-2008 story Saturday, as they search for an ending that fits.
Anthony Stipa can be reached at Anthony. Stipa@temple.edu.