First Alliya Butts went down. Then two months later, Desiree Oliver followed.
Graduate student Butts suffered a season-ending ACL injury less than one month before the season-opener in November. Eight games into the season, sophomore Oliver tore a ligament in her left thumb, forcing her to be sidelined for six weeks.
“It was devastating,” coach Tonya Cardoza said. “[We lost] Alliya [Butts], and then to lose your next point guard, that was really really hard.”
Butts and Oliver are both available to start the season. The two guards each played 29 minutes in the Owls’ 76-64 exhibition win against the University of the Sciences on Oct. 30. Butts started at point guard, while Oliver came in off the bench.
Without Butts or Oliver last year, Temple turned to sophomore Emani Mayo, former guard Khadijah Berger and former guard and current graduate manager Mykia Jones.
All three players, however, were not traditional point guards, Cardoza and Oliver said.
“We were banking on [Oliver] to be our main ball-handler,” Butts said. “You need a point guard. It’s hard because [a point guard] is someone who controls the floor and sets things up. When you don’t have a point guard, you don’t have those pieces, so things can get chaotic.”
Temple recorded 14.4 assists per game, which ranked second in the American Athletic Conference in 2016-17. With Butts missing the entire 2017-18 season and Oliver forced to sit out nine games, the Owls finished eighth in the conference with 13 assists per game.
“It was the longest I had ever sat out,” Oliver said. “It was my first time spending that much time away from basketball. I didn’t really know how to feel, I was sad.”
Oliver, who was ranked a top-100 prospect in the Class of 2017 by ESPN, played at least 18 minutes in seven of Temple’s first eight games coming off the bench. The Owls went 6-2 in those games.
Before the Owls’ win against Hampton University, Oliver tore her ulnar collateral ligament in practice. The injury required surgery, and Oliver missed nine games. The Owls went 3-6 over that span.
“[Oliver was] our point guard,” said sophomore Breanna Perry, who also took over point guard duties after Oliver’s injury. “You need somebody to lead us on the floor, so it was scary thinking about who would pick up that spot because Alliya was out, and then [Oliver].”
Temple missed Butts’ scoring. She is first in program history in made 3-pointers and led the team in scoring as a freshman and sophomore.
Oliver noticed how much the point guard position meant to the struggling Owls, who finished 12-19 last season.
Because her injury didn’t prevent her from running, Oliver worked on her conditioning while she recovered. She ran on treadmills while going through her rehab process. She began to incorporate more hustle into her game and preach to herself the importance of being a leader and an instrumental piece on the team.
In addition to taking in the game from the sideline, Oliver also worked on regaining strength in her thumb, which was “weak, skinny and ugly,” she said.
Oliver brings energy and good defense to the team, in addition to her jumper and scoring abilities, Perry said.
Butts and Oliver bring needed defensive help to the Owls. Temple allowed its opponents to score 72.7 points per game, which ranked last in the American Athletic Conference. In 2016-17, Butts was fifth in the conference with 2.1 steals per game.
After Oliver returned on Jan. 21 against UConn, the Owls dropped 11 of their remaining 14 games, with 10 losses coming in conference play. Oliver averaged 6.1 points in the 14 games after her injury.
Oliver scored in double-figures in four of her 22 games, including an 18-point outing against Wagner College. But she also struggled at times, like when she shot 1-for-8 from the field and had four turnovers against the University of Mississippi.
“With her, it’s about not trying to do too much too soon, and letting the game come to her,” Cardoza said. “She’s a great talent and she can change to the pace of the game.”