Members of the women’s basketball team who showed up at the Draught Horse Restaurant to watch the NCAA Tournament Selection Show last night, looked at each other in amazement. Atlantic Ten Conference rival George Washington had just received a seven-seed, which was higher than most had expected it to receive. That meant the A-10 Champion Owls would probably receive no less than a six seed.
The Owls’ postseason fate came just a few minutes later. Indeed, the Owls had received a six seed. They are off to Trenton, N.J., for the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Their first dance partner will be Hartford, which won its second straight American East Conference title to earn an automatic bid into the Tournament.
“I’m comfortable where we are,” senior guard Khadija Bowens said of the Owls’ seeding. “We’re not too far from home. Hopefully, we can go out there, get our wins and keep it moving, like we did in the [A-10] tournament.”
The Owls spent the night celebrating. They munched on snacks and danced to the music pounding through the restaurant’s sound system. They knew they were Tourney bound for a week, a reward for winning the A-10.
There’s no time for relaxing now, though, with such high expectations. After advancing to the NCAA Tournament’s second round last year and spending all of this season ranked in the top 25, the Owls have their sights on making the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history.
“I’m pretty confident that we will,” Bowens said. “… If everybody brings their A-game, and we all play Temple basketball, we’re going to go deep into the Tournament.”
If the Owls beat Hartford Sunday, they will likely face a familiar foe. Third-seeded Georgia is favored over No. 14 Marist. The Owls upset the Lady Dogs in overtime last December, on a three-pointer from Jennifer Owens in the final seconds.
The Owls enter the Tournament in stride, having won their third straight A-10 championship. They are winners of six of their last seven games. Not coincidently, senior all-America candidate Candice Dupree has found her groove.
“I’m trying to take this team as far as possible,” Dupree said. “I play hard every possession and I do what I have to do to win the game.”
Coach Dawn Staley said Dupree is shouldering the responsibility of being an all-America candidate.
“She wants to make an impression, not just at Temple, not just in the Atlantic Ten, but nationwide,” Staley said.
Dupree has notched five double-doubles in the last seven games, averaging 22.7 points and 10.7 rebounds in that span. During the A-10 tournament, the 6-2 forward became the first player to win three consecutive, unshared Most Outstanding Player awards.
Supplementing Dupree in the tournament was junior forward Kamesha Hairston, who joined Dupree on the all-tournament and all-conference first teams with 15.3 points and 7.3 boards per game.
“I refused to let this team lose,” Hairston said. “I wanted to do anything that I could [do] to help this team win – pull in rebounds or whatever it was. I knew what I had to do: I had to step and be a leader for this team.”
The road to the Owls’ third straight conference title began smoothly, with two dominant wins that provided the starters with some bench time.
Behind Dupree’s shooting woes, the Owls struggled initially against sixth-seeded Dayton in the A-10 quarterfinals, but overcame their early miscues to pull away for a 70-55 victory.
The third-seeded Owls then rolled over 10th-seeded Duquesne, 76-63, as Dupree’s 31 points tied a career high and Hairston chipped in with 17.
Those wins set up a rematch of last season’s A-10 final against George Washington. The Colonials had given the Owls fits all season by winning both regular season meetings. In the most recent game last month, the Colonials spoiled Temple’s senior night by erasing an 11-point halftime deficit to win in overtime.
But the A-10 title game was different.
“We just wanted it real bad,” Dupree said after the game. “We knew that it was going to be our third [title] in a row. We had lost to GW twice already in conference play and didn’t want to make it a third.”
The two defensive stalwarts went neck-and-neck through the first half. Neither team pulled ahead by more than four points, and the Owls ended the half ahead, 25-23.
Midway through the second half, the Owls took a 43-35 lead on a 13-4 run. But GW answered with its own 8-0 run to tie the score at 43. The Owls held the Colonials without a field goal over the next seven minutes, opening up a 54-46 lead with two minutes remaining.
The win provided Temple with a bit of history, as it joined Penn State as the only schools to win three straight A-10 tournaments. The Nittany Lions won four straight, from 1983-87.
But while the Owls secured their place in history, a moment late in the first half presented a subtle reminder of the future.
Dupree sat on the bench with two fouls. At such times this season, assistant coach Darius Taylor has reminded Staley that the Dupree-less players on the court represent much of next season’s squad. But for now, Staley still has Dupree and she is content with her star player.
“We’re going to ride Candice out to the sunset,” Staley said following the game.
That ride begins Sunday.
After the Owls seeding announcement, newly retired men’s basketball coach John Chaney was seen chatting with Staley. The two constantly exchange coaching suggestions. … The Owls are the third team in the last 11 seasons to win the A-10 tournament without the benefit of a top seed. … Dupree became Temple’s second-leading scorer all-time by passing Pam Balogh during the A-10 tournament.
John Kopp can be reached at email@example.com.