On Dec. 4 of last year, the women’s basketball team traveled to Gainesville and got pummeled by Florida, 77-58, as the Gators connected for a school-record 11 three pointers. That loss, senior center Candice Dupree said last month at Atlantic Ten Conference Media Day, proved to be the turning point in the Owls’ breakout season.
“We kind of started out a little rough, a -point loss to Florida, but I think that motivated us,” Dupree said.
Since that loss, the Owls had only lost once – to nationally-ranked Rutgers in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Saturday’s rematch with Florida gave the Owls a chance at revenge.
Unlike the previous meeting between the teams, the No. 20 Owls kept pace with the Gators the entire game. But the Gators survived a last minute rally to hang on for a 58-55 upset, snapping the Owls’ 30-game regular season winning streak.
Junior forward Kamesha Hairston had a season-high 24 points and the Owls outrebounded the Gators, 38 to 33, behind sophomore forward Lady Comfort’s career-high 10-board performance. But Dupree struggled all night, going just 4 for 11 from the floor. The Owls (6-1) turned the ball over a season-high 26 times.
“We need to take care of the basketball,” Staley said. “We need to make better decisions with the basketball. Candice does not [often] have games like she had tonight.”
Despite the loss, Staley said she saw effort that was absent in the Owls’ closer-than-expected 60-53 win over Maryland-Eastern Shore early last week.
“My thing with this particular game was coming in ready to play and playing for 40 minutes, because our last outing, we didn’t have that,” Staley said. “It’s easy to coach a team that gives that kind of effort, the kind of effort we gave tonight.”
Their game with the Gators (5-1) marked the beginning of the Owls’ toughest non-conference stretch of the season and in recent memory. Over their next five games, the Owls will face No. 17 Georgia, city rival Villanova, No. 1 Tennessee and A-10 newcomer Charlotte.
After taking an early 9-7 lead, the Owls trailed until senior guard Jennifer Owens hit a three just over eight minutes into the second half to knot the score at 42. Hairston stole the ball on the Gators’ next possession, and her layup gave the Owls the lead.
Hairston, the only Owl to reach double-digit scoring, carried the offense. She shot 9-of-16 from the floor, including 3-of-7 from three-point range.
“I was surprised that I was hitting shots like that, but I had been working on my shot,” Hairston said. “I’m strong today, so I was working.”
Ten Temple turnovers over the next eight minutes (including three by Dupree) allowed the Gators to build a seven-point lead. Another three pointer from Owens cut the Owls’ deficit to four, but the Owls turned the ball over twice more and a technical foul on Comfort helped the Gators build their lead up to six points.
Down 58-52 with 28 seconds remaining, the Owls staged one final comeback bid. Hairston hit three foul shots to bring the Owls to within three, but Owens’ potential game-tying three-point attempt bounced off the rim as time expired.
With her eight points, Dupree became the seventh-highest scorer in Temple history, passing Claudrena Harold. Barring injury, Dupree should easily move into third place all-time (75 points away) and could pass Pam Balogh (382 points away) for second place. Marilyn Stephens’ career record of 2,194 points is probably out of reach (940 points away).
Hairston, who sank all of her free throws, owns a 91.3 percent free throw percentage this season. … Dupree’s four offensive rebounds nearly matched her season total of five entering the game. She is chronicling the season in a diary on ESPN.com, which she will regularly update.
John Kopp can be reached at email@example.com.