Even against the country’s best team in women’s basketball, Tonya Cardoza did not hesitate to counter a star-studded Connecticut squad with two freshmen.
Guard Feyonda Fitzgerald ran the point for 23 minutes, while center Taylor Robinson played 18 minutes and grabbed five rebounds against an undefeated UConn team at McGonigle Hall on Jan. 28.
Starting two freshmen alongside a sophomore in Erica Covile may not be the prototypical formula to combat a team that had not lost since last March, but it was nothing new for the Owls’ sixth-year coach and her young roster.
“The fact that they’ve gotten experience and are holding their own with it is definitely a positive,” Cardoza said. “Playing in this conference against the teams that we’ve played against, for freshmen to play significant minutes helps a lot.”
Fitzgerald was not a highly-ranked prospect coming out of high school. In fact, the Norfolk, Va. native didn’t have any type of star rating attached to her name as a rising prospect at Lake Taylor High School.
Yet, Fitzgerald is leading the Owls with 12.8 points per game as the starting point guard. She’s logged 31 minutes per game, ranking third on the team behind first-teamers Tyonna Williams and Natasha Thames.
“When I was trying to figure out what college I wanted to go to, the coaches told me that they needed a point guard,” Fitzgerald said. “I thought when I came here that I probably wouldn’t play right away, but I had a good chance of playing a lot of minutes. So I just came in, worked hard, did what I had to do and it just so happens that I’m playing the whole game sometimes.”
It just so happened that Fitzgerald started the season-opener at La Salle and has seen her name in the starting lineup for every one of Temple’s 23 games.
She has turned into the team’s offensive leader, often running the floor and taking 96 more shot attempts (301) than any other player on the roster.
“[Cardoza] has confidence in me,” Fitzgerald said. “She trusts me with the ball in my hand. When time’s running down, she wants the ball in my hand.”
Cardoza also has confidence in her freshman post player, as Robinson has started seven contests and appeared in 17.
The 6-foot-4-inch center from St. Louis, earned her first collegiate start on the road against Connecticut Jan. 11, and is averaging four rebounds per game and 13 minutes per game.
“When I got recruited, she told me she needed a post player because [Victoria Macaulay] left last year,” Robinson said. “I took that as I could come in and play as long as I work hard and do what I needed to do. Personally my role is I have to come in, work hard, make sure I finish and play defense.”
Freshman Safiya Martin has also seen time off the bench at center (10.5 mpg.), while Covile has seen a massive increase in playing time as a sophomore (25.8 mpg.). Covile has started every game and ranks third on the team in rebounds (135) and second with 39 steals.
“We knew that Feyonda would play,” Cardoza said. “With Taylor and Safiya, we’d thought they’d work their way in with significant minutes and that has happened. And with Erica too, she didn’t play that much last year and for her to play significant minutes is a bonus for us.”
Even with seeing significant action in 2013-14, Fitzgerald and Robinson both said it’s been an ongoing transition that is still under way.
“The college game is way different [than high school],” Fitzgerald said. “The girls are way bigger, the tempo is way faster, it’s just a different level and I’ve had to adjust to it.”
“People are actually my height in college,” Robinson said. “In high school, I always towered over everybody. I’m used to the height in [American Athletic Union] ball, but the skill level is a lot different. People are way better, bigger and faster and I’m already bigger than a lot of girls and I think I’ve adjusted pretty well. I’m still adjusting speed-wise because it is really fast-paced.”
Despite the significant amount of time on the floor that they’ve seen this year, both players have struggled with inconsistency at times this season and said they both feel they can work to improve before season’s end.
“My confidence is kind of up and down,” Robinson said. “In the Rutgers game I felt really confident, but sometimes I get a bit discouraged. I’m trying to work on getting more confident every time I‘m on the floor. But I feel like I’m getting better physically and mentally in each game we play in.”
“I feel like now I’m just in a neutral mode or something,” Fitzgerald said. “But I want to give it a good kick and be better than what I am now so I’m going keep working hard.”
“My body’s really tired right now, but that’s no excuse,” Fitzgerald added. “I have to keep pushing, and do what I have to do.”
Andrew Parent can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @daParent93.