The heartache is still there.
The women’s basketball team’s captivating season ended in defeat last Tuesday, with a loss to Rutgers, 61-54, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Rather than playing at the Liacouras Center for a chance to advance to their first Final Four, the Owls were reduced to watching other teams play on their home floor in the Philadelphia Regional Bracket semifinals Sunday and finals tonight.
Senior forward Ari Moore said the memories of the loss to Rutgers still haunt her. For Moore, losing in the NCAA Tournament meant an end to her remarkable Temple career. Moore and fellow seniors Cynthia Jordan and Rachel Marcus leave as the winningest graduating class in the program’s history with 83 wins and three Atlantic Ten Conference championships. But that was no consolation to Moore.
After committing her fifth foul with 3:38 remaining against the Scarlet Knights, Moore trudged to the bench in tears. Her teammates threw a towel over her head and spoke comforting words on the bench.
This weekend Moore, the team’s emotional leader, said the pain had not subsided.
“It’s still there, you know. It’s going to be a process, getting over the loss, getting over basketball,” said Moore, who began playing organized basketball when she was 12. “After you stop doing something you’ve been doing for 10 years, it’ll take some time to get over.
“I tried not to have an emotional breakdown [on the bench]. I had to hold it all in.”
Following the game, Moore said she would not allow the loss to spoil a highly successful season, in which records fell and higher standards of success were set.
“I was a part of a great season and I’m not going to let this one loss define it,” Moore said at the time. “[But] I didn’t want to go out like that.”
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
The Owls turned a lot of heads this season, a trend that started with their taxing non-conference schedule. Coach Dawn Staley has said she would much rather have the Owls drop games to top 25 teams than beat up on losing programs.
That’s why the Owls (28-4) hosted then-No. 2 LSU and visited then-No. 1-Tennessee as part of a three-game stretch in late November. Though they lost both games, the Owls were competitive, giving both ranked opponents scares.
It was not until a Dec. 13 meeting with then-No. 22 Rutgers that Staley’s plan finally came to fruition. The Owls beat the Scarlet Knights in decisive fashion, 71-60, at the Liacouras Center. Staley notched her first coaching win over a ranked opponent and Temple’s first since 1988. At the time, it was the Owls second-straight win in a streak that would run 25 games.
While Temple was winning in bunches, it was gaining national recognition as an up-and-coming program. The Owls carried their streak into the A-10 schedule, winning key conference games against West Division leaders Richmond, George Washington and Xavier in succession.
The Owls’ nationally televised win over then-No. 25 Richmond on Jan. 23 was their second victory over a ranked opponent. Two days after beating the Spiders, the Owls climbed into the Associated Press rankings themselves at No. 24, earning the first ranking in program history. In the season’s final poll, the Owls had reached No. 15.
Staley became just the 20th individual to ever coach and play for a ranked team.
The Owls closed out their regular season on a high note. They had 21 consecutive wins, and junior center Candice Dupree, the team’s offensive leader, scored her 1,000th career point two weeks prior to the A-10 tournament.
After dominating wins over Saint Joseph’s and Xavier, Staley’s 99th and 100th career coaching victories, the Owls defeated host George Washington in the A-10 title game. Beating the Colonials gave the Owls an automatic bid into the NCAA tourney, in which they received a six seed.
The Owls won their 25th straight game when they beat Louisiana Tech in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The win was the second NCAA Tournament victory in the program history, and the first since the Owls beat Holy Cross at McGonigle Hall in 1989.
WHAT’S TO COME
During the Owls’ expansive win streak, they established a solid base on which to build for next season.
No one was more essential than Staley. As reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer yesterday, Staley has received offers from several other programs to coach since the Owls’ season-ending loss. Without Staley, Moore said, the Owls would not have gotten as far as they did.
“Coach is clearly the backbone of the program,” Moore said. “She sets dreams and goals for us. Without those, we wouldn’t be where we were. Some people make goals and don’t know how to attain them. She attains them. She goes and gets it. She makes huge goals and never lets herself down.”
Christopher A. Vito can be reached at email@example.com.