After a one-year hiatus, Dawn Staley’s Temple Owls are back in the NCAA tournament, this time as a No. 11 seed in the West bracket. This time, they’ll have the luxury of playing on their home floor at the Liacouras Center against sixth-seeded Texas Christian University.
Don’t know much about TCU? Don’t worry. Once word came of their opponent on Selection Sunday; even the Owls themselves didn’t know much about the Horned Frogs, who might get bonus points for one of the more creative nicknames in college sports.
The Horned Frogs might raise a few eyebrows with their nickname, but they’re hardly an unknown commodity in women’s college basketball. TCU is No. 20 in the latest USA Today poll. Temple is 0-4 against nationally ranked opponents this season, but junior guard Cynthia Jordan said the time is now to unseat a ranked team.
“Our team is a different team than it was in the regular season,” Jordan said. “We know that teams don’t play our up-tempo style for 40 minutes, so we are going to take our game to an even higher level.”
TCU (24-6) is the Conference USA runner-up this season, despite a slow start due to a number of key injuries. The Horned Frogs play an interesting brand of basketball that features two five-player rotations. Coach Jeff Mittie’s unconventional system is meant to strengthen teammate tendencies while playing harder in five-minute intervals. But even with a unique style of play, Mittie knows his team will have its hands full with Temple.
“[Temple] is an athletic team and the [sophomore center Candice] Dupree kid inside gives them a first option to go to,” Mittie said. “They have good balance and can score against the board.”
Junior forward Sandora Irvin is a huge reason behind TCU’s success. At 6-foot-3, Irvin averages a double-double (16.5 points, 12.3 rebounds). Selected to the Conference USA first team, Irvin is best known for her defensive play. A two-time conference Defensive Player of the Year, she averaged 4.1 blocks and 1.8 steals a game.
Dupree, Temple’s star center, and Irvin aren’t strangers. The Owls’ leading scorer played with her on a travel AAU team while in high school, but she admitted her relationship with Irvin was frosty.
“I’m sure she’s improved a lot since then,” Dupree said. “I don’t want to say that we never got along, but we never jelled out there on the court at all. We’ll have to settle our differences on the court [on Saturday.]”
Based on statistics alone, both Dupree and Irvin post similar numbers. But while three other TCU players average at least eight points per game, Dupree, who usually sees double-teams, doesn’t get quite as much support.
“I think Candice is more skilled but [Irvin’s] stats are better,” Staley said. “Other than that, it’s going to be a battle. If [Irvin] does not get open looks, she cannot get comfortable.
“They’re going to have to double-team Candice. If they play her straight up, Candice is going to win that battle.”
The Horned Frogs’ penchant for turnovers has been costly. They averaged 22 turnovers a game, the worst mark in Conference USA. If Temple can force that many miscues, it will minimize TCU’s scoring attempts.
“With our style and our defensive pressure, it should be somewhere in the thirties,” said junior forward Ari Moore. “If we capitalize on the turnovers, we can run the game.”
The Owls will begin watching TCU game tape today. Staley has already been doing her homework, scouting four games of tape. She plans on watching a few more before showing her team.
“They’re really focused on wanting to win and wanting to do well,” Staley said. “We can pretty much tell them to jump off a bridge and they’ll jump off a bridge because we’ve been that successful.”
Staley hopes her team avoids the jitters playing on a national stage. With a young and inexperienced squad, she said it is up to her veterans to guide the way to postseason success. Seniors Christena Hamilton and Toni Belafonte, along with Jordan and Moore, were on the 2002 NCAA tournament team and have a sense of how intense the tournament can be.
“They have some experience to draw on and they’re going to pull us through it,” Staley said of her four veterans. “Candice hasn’t been there. Tynecia [Pam] hasn’t been there and you would hope they would understand the stakes. But until you’ve been there, you really don’t know.”
Christopher A. Vito can be reached at email@example.com.