‘Every game matters’ for Temple to return to tournament

The Owls haven’t been to the NCAA tournament in the past five seasons.

The women’s basketball team practices in Pearson Hall on Friday. The team is returning four starters this season. BRIANNA SPAUSE | PHOTO EDITOR

A one-point loss ended the Owls’ season last year in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament quarterfinal round against the University of Michigan.

While the Owls had success in the postseason, they had hoped for a better outcome. They missed heading to the NCAA tournament by a narrow margin. An American Athletic Conference title win would have earned them an automatic bid, but the Owls lost to South Florida in the semifinals.

This left their postseason fate in the hands of the NCAA committee as the Owls waited to see if their 20-11 record, among other factors, would be enough to make it into the national championship tournament.

“Obviously, they didn’t feel like our resume was good enough,” coach Tonya Cardoza said. “We controlled our own destiny. We just felt like we let opportunities slip away early on in the season.”

This season, the Owls hope to stay focused and remain on course to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011, starting with their first game.

“The mindset has to be the way we start our season,” Cardoza said. “Making sure that every time we step on the floor, that every game matters. Every game is important.”

Cardoza’s squad has four of its five starters returning from last year, which is the most returning members she’s had since being hired as head coach for the 2008-09 season. The four starters include guards senior Feyonda Fitzgerald and juniors Alliya Butts, Tanaya Atkinson and Donnaizha Fountain.

Freshman forward Shantay Taylor goes up for a layup at practice on Friday.  Taylor is one of  three freshman joining the team. BRIANNA SPAUSE | PHOTO EDITOR
Freshman forward Shantay Taylor goes up for a layup at practice on Friday. Taylor is one of three freshmen joining the team. BRIANNA SPAUSE | PHOTO EDITOR

Largely due to the experience of the team and its postseason run last year, Temple was picked to finish second in The American in the preseason coaches poll. It is the highest preseason ranking awarded to the team since joining The American.

Connecticut, which won its fourth consecutive national championship last season, was picked to win the conference. The coaches picked Temple to finish ahead of South Florida, which reached the second round of the 2016 NCAA tournament.

“Preseason rankings don’t mean a thing,” Cardoza said. “It’s all about what you do throughout the season, and that’s the most important thing. But yes, we have the respect of others because of what we were able to accomplish last year and hopefully we can exceed our expectations, and our expectations are really high.”

Butts was the only unanimous first team all-conference selection. She led the Owls last season in scoring, averaging 15.1 points per game. Along with Butts, Fitzgerald was awarded first-team honors. Fitzgerald finished the season with 186 assists, the most on the team and second-most in a single season in program history.

This year, Fitzgerald, as the only returning senior starter, plans to lead the squad to an NCAA tournament berth and consistent season.

“It’s my senior year,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m just going to do whatever I have to do to help my team win each and every game and give it all I’ve got.”

While the Owls used a five-guard lineup last season, it is not a formation Cardoza anticipates keeping this year. Temple brought in three freshmen, two of whom are taller than six feet. Cardoza hopes the addition of taller players on the court will help the Owls improve on their weaknesses from last year.

“There were a lot of games where our post defense wasn’t good,” Cardoza said. “Sometimes we want to hurry up and make things happen or hurry up and win, instead of just taking each possession one possession at a time. And a lot of that comes with growth. Last year we had a lot of times three sophomores on the floor. So just that experience in itself I think will definitely help.”

Maura Razanauskas and Kevin Schaeffer can be reached at sports@temple-news.com.

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