Cardoza hopeful after AAC women’s basketball tourney outing

Temple, which only won three regular-season conference games, advanced to the quarterfinal round.

Coach Tonya Cardoza watches the Owls play during their 83-78 overtime loss to Memphis on Feb. 26 at McGonigle Hall. | JENNY KERRIGAN / THE TEMPLE NEWS

After finishing the last game of her Temple career, Tanaya Atkinson walked off the court at Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut and cried.

“I went into the locker room and told my teammates encouraging things, that they have to take this feeling into the offseason,” Atkinson told reporters after Temple’s 77-70 loss to Central Florida in the American Athletic Conference tournament quarterfinals on March 4. “They have to get into the gym, and they have to want to kill every offseason workout. I am definitely going to miss this program.”

In her senior season, Atkinson moved into second place in Temple history for both scoring and rebounding, ending her career with 1,890 points and 1,053 rebounds. She finished her career carrying the Owls’ offensive load, averaging 21.1 points per game. No other player averaged more than 11.2 points per game.

Atkinson’s milestones were some of the lone bright spots for the Owls’ season. After starting with an 8-3 record, the Owls only won four more games. They finished 12-19 overall and 3-13 in The American.

During conference play, Temple allowed 79 points per game, which ranked last in The American. The Owls also allowed the highest opponent field-goal and 3-point percentages in The American and had the lowest rebounding margin.

Temple had a seven-game losing streak from Jan. 10 to Feb. 3, until it beat Tulsa, 76-75. During that streak, the Owls had an average scoring margin of negative 19.9 points.

Temple played more competitive games later in the season.

It had an average scoring margin of 14.4 points in the final seven regular-season games. Both stretches include losses to UConn, the No. 1 team in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll.

The Owls had one of their best offensive performances of the season in the first round of the conference tournament against Wichita State. They shot 47.3 percent from the field, their best mark in conference play, to beat the Shockers, 72-59, on March 3.

Then Temple matched its season-high free-throw percentage against Central Florida.

“When we first started out in conference play, we were getting blown out by just about everybody,” Cardoza told reporters after the Central Florida game. “There were no games that we were in, but we kept coming to practice and kept grinding. … It took a little longer because we are younger, but the hard work started to pay off.”

For most of the season, three of the four starters alongside Atkinson were freshmen. Guard Emani Mayo and forward Breanna Perry started 27 games, and forward Mia Davis started all 31.

Freshman guard Desiree Oliver started nine of the last 10 regular-season games after missing time recovering from surgery on a bone in her hand.

Oliver averaged 5.6 points per game during her nine starts, which included a 12-point game in a loss on Feb. 21 to fourth-place Cincinnati.

“I think in my position as a point guard, just being able to handle the pace of the game I have improved on that a little bit,” Oliver said. “I know we like to play up-tempo here, and I just want to always be pushing the ball up.”

The freshmen’s emergence and progression has Cardoza optimistic for the future despite the team’s rough spells.

Davis, who was one of two players unanimously selected for The American’s All-Freshman Team, was the Owls’ second-leading scorer and rebounder with 11.2 points and 7.5 rebounds per game.

Mayo was also named to The American’s All-Freshman Team. She played the second-most minutes behind Atkinson, despite starting four fewer games. Mayo finished third on the team in scoring with 9.7 points per game and fourth with 2.2 assists per game.

”I have seen a lot of growth from them,” Cardoza said. “I think Breanna can be a double-digit scorer when she figures out how to turn her consistent energy into scoring. Emani was a real bright spot all season. She always pays attention and is always learning.”

A byproduct of the Owls’ inexperience was turnovers. They ranked 265th out of 349 Division I teams in turnover margin and turned the ball over 23 times against Central Florida.

“Again, our youth hurt us a little bit [against Central Florida] because we allowed the pressure to get to us, but our future is bright,” Cardoza said. “We are going to miss the seniors of course, but to watch our younger players compete over the last few days, I know next year we will not be sitting here in the same position.”

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