Temple’s 71-44 win against La Salle on Saturday was just a formality as the women’s basketball team (20-8, 13-1 Atlantic Ten Conference) already clinched the second seed in the A-10 Tournament well before tip-off.
The Owls’ second-place finish for the regular season capped off another productive season with coach Tonya Cardoza at the helm.
“Right now we’re playing really good basketball,” Cardoza said. “It’s the last opportunity these seniors have to win a championship and I think their mindset is one that they don’t want to lose, they want to win and you can tell by the way that they’re playing the last few games that they’re really determined.”
In four years Cardoza has continued right where former coach, and the school’s winningest, Dawn Staley, left off. Cardoza has never finished lower than third in the conference regular season and her teams have never lost more than three A-10 games in one year.
Not many coaches have that kind of success right out of the gate in their first stint as a coach, said Cardoza’s former boss, Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma.
“I think in one sense it’s surprising because usually when coaches take over programs they struggle a little bit,” Auriemma said through a media representative. “But [Cardoza’s] just kind of stepped in and Temple’s not missed a beat, and they’re in the NCAA Tournament every year that she’s been there and it looks like they’re going to be there again this year.”
But Cardoza has struggled in the postseason when considering her success during the regular season.
Don’t get me wrong, Cardoza’s credentials with the Owls are impressive. Outside of the conference record (48-8) and having the second-most wins (90) in school history, she’s also the only coach in program history to reach the NCAA Tournament second round in two consecutive years.
But Cardoza’s squads haven’t fared as well as would be expected in the A-10 Tournament. She’s just 4-3, losing twice in the semi-finals and another time in the finals, despite always having a first round bye.
Last year the team lost to Xavier in the final game of the season, finishing 13-1, but the loss essentially ended their title hopes. The Owls were upset in the semis a week later by Dayton, who went on to lose to Xavier.
“We were on such a high,” Cardoza said about going into the Xavier game. “To be that close to winning a regular season championship, and losing to those guys at home in a close game, I think that going into the tournament, mentally we weren’t at our best.”
Temple rebounded and moved on to the second round in March Madness, but missed out on recapturing the conference title for the first time since 2006.
Cardoza said doesn’t feel like she’s missing anything right now, however.
“There are a lot of people that have been coaching this game for a long time that don’t have championships,” she said. “I definitely don’t feel like it defines me in any way.”
Maybe the team hasn’t had the same success because the A-10 Tournament requires not only talent, but endurance. It takes a lot out of players to play three straight days, and Cardoza acknowledged that she has to plan game strategies to account for that.
But to her credit, Cardoza spent 14 years learning from one of the game’s best, Auriemma, when she was an assistant coach. During her time on staff, Cardoza helped the Huskies win five NCAA National Championships.
“Just how to prepare teams, how to get the most out of them, taking advantage of the moment that you’re in, and winning basketball games,” Cardoza said about what she learned. “That’s what [Auriemma] does well, he finds ways to win basketball games and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
“I think he’s done everything he possibly can to put me in this situation,” she added.
But Cardoza may have her best chance for the foreseeable future at winning the A-10, with possibly her stronger group of seniors – guards BJ Williams, Shey Peddy, Kristen McCarthy and center Joelle Connelly – in her tenure leading the team.
“I think the way that we’re playing now, hopefully we’ll carry this momentum into the tournament,” Peddy said. “That would definitely be to our advantage as well.”
Cardoza, however, doesn’t feel this is her last shot for a few years.
“I have confidence in the guys that I’ve recruited to come in here that they’re going to come in here and play well, play hard,” she said. “We’re not taking anything for granted, but next year our goals are always going to be the same.”
The team, however, doesn’t feel any added pressure to win a title for its coach. They’re focused on winning the school’s first in six years.
“It’s been a while since we’ve had an A-10 championship,” McCarthy said. “But it wouldn’t be pressure at all.”
Jake Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.