With her goals in sight, Temple women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley set a rigid non-conference schedule for her team this season.
Playing national powerhouses like Kentucky, Rutgers and Louisiana State should have been an advantage for the Owls come tournament time.
But Temple’s early exposure to such quality opponents didn’t help on Saturday as the Owls lost to Texas Christian University, 70-57, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
In 2002, the Owls went one-and-done in the NCAAs. And with the same story this season, Staley said that with more experience and exposure under their belt, the Owls’ expectations will be set even higher.
“The thing that bothers me the most is that no one expected us to win the game,” Staley said. “That’s in the pit of my stomach right now.”
“Next year, we host the East regional, the road to the Final Four. So for us, that’s the carrot that will be dangling in front of our players’ faces all next year, and in the summer sessions and workouts. That’s the thing we are shooting for.”
The loss snapped an eight-game, home-winning streak that stretched three months.
TCU coach Jeff Mittie, who has taken his team to the second round of the Big Dance each of the last four years, was taken aback by the Owls’ speed.
“They surprised me quickness-wise,” Mittie said. “I didn’t think they were going to be able to get at our shooters like that based on the tape. We may have had the tape on a slower speed, I’m not sure. They were athletic and I did not think that they were going to lock into us like that.”
For the Owls (21-10), building and playing with a lead was their strength this season. In the NCAA’s, however, it was their weakness. Tempel lost the lead with 11 minutes, 55 seconds remaining in the first half and would regain it only once more, despite tying the score 10 times.
A game within the game took place under the rim.
The Horned Frogs’ Sandora Irvin had her way with Temple sophomore center Candice Dupree all afternoon. Irvin scored 21 of TCU’s 40 points in the paint, flustering Dupree into committing fouls. Irvin complimented Dupree’s offensive output.
“She’s a great player because she’s real smart,” Irvin said. “I guess she knows me because she gave me a lot of head fakes and got me into the air. She did a good job out there. She just fouled out before I did.”
With Dupree in early foul trouble, junior forward Ari Moore became a scoring threat. Dupree saw double-teams, often leaving Moore open at the high post. Moore drove the lane most of the second half and scored a team-high of 16 points to give the Owls several momentary leads.
The bar will continue to rise
Staley wants nothing more than for the Owls to be in the national spotlight every year. And for the second time in her four-year coaching career, they were.
Temple had to scale some hurdles to earn their second Atlantic Ten Conference title in three seasons. After replacing last year’s scoring leader Stacey Smalls, the Owls didn’t have a definitive offensive threat other than Dupree.
Staley then introduced a new point guard into the mix. Learning on the job, junior Cynthia Jordan was getting the most playing time she ever had under Staley. Two newcomers and highly touted freshmen, guard Britney Jordan and forward Kamesha Hairston came into the program as well.
Temple’s youth was reflective of its slow start. Winning just four of their first 11 games, the Owls came into their own against A-10 competition. Behind the stepped up play of seniors Christena Hamilton, Toni Belafonte and Tynecia Pam, the team won 17 of its last 20 games. Hamilton and Belafonte saw their numbers improve in conference play, bearing a heavy load in a critical stage of the season.
“They [the seniors] were the leaders this season,” Staley said. “They came in with a purpose and a focus. The younger players – they had no choice but to come along. I’m quite sure their legacy will live on far past [losing to TCU].”
The Owls melded behind the senior leadership. Britney Jordan won two consecutive A-10 Rookie of the Week honors, leading the team to four straight wins. Dupree posted four 20-point games and six double-doubles. Cynthia Jordan improved her court vision, leading the A-10 in assist-to-turnover ratio.
The only thing left for Staley’s squad is a trip to the second round of the NCAA tournament. And Staley said that that isn’t too far behind.
“This time of year is an eye-opening experience,” Staley said. “I vowed to our players that if we are in this again, we will get out of the first round. I know it. Two times is enough to know what it is to lose. We have to explain to our players that there is another level of basketball out there.”
Christopher A. Vito can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.