‘Close isn’t enough’

After two lackluster seasons and a transformed roster, Tyonna Williams and company look to return to winning form.

"Obviously, our past two years haven't been good ones, and that's not Temple basketball"- Tayonna Williams. Andrew Thayer | TTN
"Obviously, our past two years haven't been good ones, and that's not Temple basketball"- Tayonna Williams. Andrew Thayer | TTN

Tyonna Williams is a competitor.

The guard had the chance to play in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament her freshman year with Temple, but that was followed up with two consecutive sub-.500 seasons.

Now the lone senior on the 2014-15 Owls squad, Williams said there’s one item she’d like to check off her agenda before her collegiate career comes to a close; make the NCAA Tournament.

“This is my senior year,” Williams said. “This is my last hoorah. This is my last go-around, and I won’t have another chance.”

“I haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament,” she added. “My freshman year we went to the [WNIT], but that is not good enough for me. I’m a competitor, and that is something I want to say I was able to do in college. This year, that is a big goal of mine and the team as well. We all want to make the postseason.”

The last time Temple made the NCAA Tournament was in 2011, a year before Williams came to Philadelphia from Fort Washington, Maryland.

Now, one conference change later, the Owls are heading into their second season in the American Athletic Conference, looking to return to those 20-plus win seasons and NCAA tournament appearances that seemed the norm just a few years ago, when they were still part of the Atlantic 10 Conference.

“I think our realest goal is just to win as many games as we can,” Williams said. “Obviously, our past two years haven’t been good ones, and that’s not Temple basketball. I think just getting back to the legacy of Temple women’s basketball, getting back to the 20-win seasons, getting back to beating some of these ranked teams, and not just coming close because close isn’t good enough.”

Temple’s final run in the A-10 ended with a 14-18 regular season record, with a semifinal loss to Fordham in the conference tournament. The Owls’ inaugural year in the American came with another 14-win season, and a quarterfinal defeat to South Florida in the conference championship.

Temple suffered six losses decided by six points or less last season, a trend that coach Tonya Cardoza said the team hopes to learn from heading into 2014-15.

“Our goal is to get better every day and put ourselves in position to win basketball games,” Cardoza said. “I felt like last year we were in position, we had a lot of games down the stretch, and now we have to learn how to win those games, and get ourselves in position where we can go to postseason.”

“I think just knowing how to put away a team was it,” Williams said. “A lot of the games we felt like we lost because of things that we did, not to take anything away from our competitors.”

But there still may be a learning curve.

Temple is coming in with a roster where six of its nine active players are underclassmen. On top of that, East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa joined the fray in the American.

The team can find leadership from its returning players like Williams, junior guard Erica Covile and sophomore guard Feyonda Fitzgerald.

Williams has started every game for the past two years, averaging 9.2 points per game last season. Covile started 26 of 30 games in the 2013-14 campaign, averaging  8.1 ppg and 5.9 rebounds per game, while Fitzgerald came in with a solid freshman year, putting up 12.9 ppg and 3.8 assists per game.

Still, Cardoza expects Alliya Butts, Khadijah Berger and Tanaya Atkinso – the team’s three freshman guards – to come in and have an immediate impact on the court.

“Alliya is a spark plug for us,” Cardoza said. “She can be really aggressive on the offensive end and keep the defense on their heels.

“Tanaya Atkinson, she is a bigger guard, who is physical around the basket,” Cardoza added. “Someone who over time could be a really good defender for us as well as a rebounder, and then Khadijah is that utility guy. She is a smart player,  she can do a lot of different things, she can handle the basketball, she can knock down the shot. She is one of those players that can do a lot.”

Mali, Africa native and incoming forward Mama Traore, who transferred from Burlington County Community College, will be looked upon to make up for the physical presence that left when Natasha Thames, who averaged 6.2 rebounds per game in her career, graduated after last season.

“That is something that we’re definitely going to miss,” Cardoza said. “We’re going to need those guys to rebound the basketball for us, and just be a physical presence. Not so much on the offensive end, but the defensive end is probably where we are going to miss [Thames] a lot.”

“She is someone who just understood what she was supposed to do,” Cardoza added. “She was physical, she rebounded the ball, and like I said, those two are going to have to collectively make up for those rebounds and guarding bigs.”

Temple’s season will get going on Friday, opening up with a Big 5 matchup against La Salle at the Liacouras Center.

“It’s going to be a learning experience again [this season],” Williams said. “A lot of new faces, a lot of young players.  But I feel like the people that are returning, we’ve done a good job of taking them under our wings and showing them how Temple basketball should be played.”

Nick Tricome can be reached at nick.tricome@temple.edu and on twitter @itssnick215

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