Dawn Staley knows the importance of a rigid non-conference schedule. When it comes time for earning bids to the NCAA Tournament, the women’s basketball coach would much rather have her team drop games to top 25 programs than snatch up wins against lesser competition.
After an early exit from the NCAA Tournament last March, the Owls open their season against Brown tonight in Providence, R.I. Following that game against one of the Ivy League’s top teams, the schedule gets increasingly difficult. The Owls play No. 3 LSU in Tuesday’s home-opener, then hit the road for a contest with No. 1 Tennessee.
Last season’s 4-7 record against non-conference opponents has the Owls wondering if they can turn things around this season. The Owls return three starters, who will provide welcome experience to the roster that added five freshmen in the offseason.
Senior point guard Cynthia Jordan and junior center Candice Dupree, the Owls’ co-captains, return. Senior forward Ari Moore, sophomore forward Kamesha Hairston and junior guard Jennifer Owens round out the starting lineup.
Brown returns three starters as well. Center Holly Robertson, the Bears’ top returning scorer, should be a challenge in the middle for Dupree. Because of her mobility, Robertson scores most of her points from three-point distance or just inside the arc.
In her time at Temple, Dupree has never matched up against a post player with a long range shot. Dupree’s inexperience against such a player and her reluctance to come out of the paint could hurt the Owls.
“Our post players never feel comfortable with going out there on the perimeter and denying the ball,” Staley said. “We’ve been putting it in their ears that [Robertson] can shoot the three. My players should be cognizant of that by game time.”
The Owls have had limited game tape to watch in preparation for today’s game. Moore said much of the team’s focus has been slightly diverted this week anyway. Instead of learning about the opposition, the Owls have spent much of this week’s practice time learning their own plays.
“Practice this week has been teaching the game more than anything,” Moore said. “Last year we were what you’d call a veteran squad. This year, we have a lot of newcomers, so things are different. Brown is just another opponent. We feel like we can compete with anybody on the floor.”
Temple’s bench was depleted by graduation. The Owls lost their third leading scorer in Christena Hamilton and one of their best perimeter shooters and defenders in Toni Belafonte.
Staley said several members of this year’s freshmen class have already exceeded her expectations and thinks each of those voids can be filled immediately.
She sees similarities between her newcomers and those who graduated, and expects some of the freshmen to see playing time against Brown. As one of the team’s best defenders, forward Nicole Pittman provides physical play and blocked shots. Center Amanda Piribauer, who Staley said is the most improved player since preseason camp, has been tenacious in pursuit of offensive rebounds. Hairston said her freshmen teammates will be important to the team’s success in the early season.
“It’s almost a whole new team this season,” Hairston said. “That doesn’t mean we have to be unprepared. The newcomers will be ready to attack at all times because these games are important for us down the road. They’ll get us ready for the rest of our season and when it comes time to play our conference.”
Christopher A. Vito can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.