Women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley knows her team has the talent to beat No. 9 Rutgers tonight.
She just questions whether or not the team has the heart to pull off the upset.
“We’ve got the talent to win this game [tonight],” Staley said. “We don’t have to play a perfect game. We just have to come to play.”
The No. 21 Owls, who play the Scarlet Knights tonight in New Brunswick, N.J., are 12-4 overall and 4-1 in the Atlantic Ten Conference. At the same point last season, they were 13-3 overall and 5-0 in the A-10.
Despite their strong record, the Owls’ season has been full of inconsistency. They upset then-No. 17 Georgia in a thrilling overtime game on Dec. 19, but also suffered an unexpected two-point defeat to Stony Brook, a program that had never toppled a ranked opponent.
Staley has repeatedly said that the Owls lack the passion and leadership that since-graduated starters Cynthia Jordan and Ari Moore provided. She said her biggest concern with the team is “inside people’s bodies, hearts.”
The Owls have shown they have the talent to compete with the country’s top teams. Nothing demonstrated this better than their 69-66 overtime upset over the Lady Dogs.
Sophomore center Lady Comfort made two foul shots with a couple seconds remaining to force the overtime session. When Comfort and senior all-America candidate Candice Dupree fouled out shortly into overtime, the outlook appeared gloom for the Owls. But senior point guard Jennifer Owens picked up the load, hitting three three-point shots, including the game-winner.
The Owls have received solid play from their less-experienced players. Comfort provided a glimpse of her potential in a home win over Charlotte on Jan. 6, leading the team with 18 points and 13 rebounds. Owens has emerged from a trio of candidates as the team’s point guard.
“She’s taking care of the basketball,” Staley said of Owens. “She’s knocking down threes. The only thing she could do is just be a little more vocal. And if we can get that out of her, we’ll probably be a better basketball team.”
But at times the Owls have struggled to play a full 40 minutes, particularly against teams they should roll past. Staley has stressed this all season.
In their 74-65 win over St. Bonaventure Sunday, the Owls cruised to a 42-25 halftime lead on 65 percent shooting. But they played sloppy in the final 20 minutes. The Owls committed 10 fouls within the first eight minutes of the half allowing the Bonnies to slowly chip within nine by the final buzzer.
“I think this is really indicative of our team, the state of the team,” Staley said. “[I’m] disappointed. I don’t know who this team is, I really don’t. But we’re going to find out real soon.”
The poor ball-handling is uncharacteristic of past Owls teams. In just one year’s time, the Owls have gone from second in the A-10 in turnover margin, to 10th out of 14 teams. They turned the ball over 18 times Sunday against the Bonnies.
“This team is the most undisciplined team that we’ve had,” said Staley, who is in her sixth season at Temple. “They’re just really undisciplined. They’re not a team. This is the first team that’s not a team, so we’re going to get to the problem. We’ll slowly but surely get to it, but we’ll get to it.”
For the first time in five seasons, the Owls have more turnovers than they have forced.
Shooting woes have doomed the Owls in their most recent losses, to No. 1 Tennessee on Dec. 28 and to No. 25 George Washington on Jan. 11. The Owls shot 33 percent against the bigger, quicker Lady Vols, although Staley said afterward that she thought her team got good penetration to the basket.
The Owls shot 27 percent in their 58-41 loss to the then-unranked Colonials, well below their 44 percent season average. The loss snapped the Owls’ 24-game unbeaten streak against A-10 opponents, which dated back to the 2003-04 season.
The Owls’ A-10 schedule is tougher this season than when they went 16-0 last season. Under last season’s two-division format, the Owls had to face Richmond and the Colonials once. But under the conference’s new one-division format, the Owls now must play the Colonials and the Spiders twice.
Despite the schedule, Comfort said she is confident that the Owls can bring home their fourth A-10 title in five years.
“We should win it all,” Comfort said. “By the first weekend in March we should just go all out. We’re going to go all out and we’re going to win. We need to work at it, play for 40 minutes.”
John Kopp can be reached at email@example.com.