From the bottom of the East Division barrel to Atlantic Ten champions.
That’s just how far Temple coach Dawn Staley has taken the women’s basketball team in four seasons.
Prior to Staley’s arrival, the program suffered through countless losing seasons. But when Staley came back to her hometown to coach a program on life support, she had lofty goals in mind.
“I was challenged to turn this program around,” Staley said. “People laughed when I spoke of A-10 championships. We see the bigger picture at Temple. For us, we are looking at two [A-10 titles.]”
The Owls defeated host Saint Joseph’s, 53-48, for the A-10 Championship Monday, earning their second conference title in three seasons. The win also gave the Owls their third win this season over the Hawks.
“By game three, we kind of knew their tendencies and what they were looking for,” said Ari Moore, who was selected for the all-Championship team. “We attacked them [where we felt we needed to] and because of it, we were able to take over the game.”
With the win, the Owls (21-9) receive an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament and might play their next game on their home court. The Liacouras Center is one of the sites that will host the first two rounds of the tournament.
The Owls started this game just as they had their previous two: with erratic ball-handling. Although they shot 42 percent from the floor, the Owls had 13 turnovers to St. Joseph’s seven. Despite the sluggish start, the Owls managed a 23-19 halftime lead.
To open the second half, Temple took advantage of the Hawks miscues. The Hawks committed six turnovers in a five-minute interval, allowing the Owls to stretch their lead.
Freshman guard Kamesha Hairston was intentionally fouled after hitting a bucket with less than eight minutes to play. Hairston knocked down one of two free throw attempts, then sophomore center Candice Dupree scored on a putback. The five-point possession put the Owls up by 16.
The Hawks (20-10) would made things interesting, though. Behind an 18-6 run, St. Joe’s pulled within four points with 32 seconds left. But on the next two trips down the court, the Hawks misfired on their last three shots.
“We knew we weren’t going to escape with a double-digit win,” Staley said. “That’s why I always emphasize [having a] cushion in the second half.”
St. Joe’s coach Cindy Griffin saw her team run out of gas in the game’s waning moments.
“I thought we were in a great position to win the game [with a minute to play],” Griffin said. “[Temple] is a very good defensive team. They have been our nemesis all season long. We just weren’t consistent enough [down the stretch.]”
Dupree, Moore and senior guard Christena Hamilton were named to the all-Championship team. Dupree was selected as the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
Hamilton, following her worst outing of the season in the semifinal round, led the Owls with 14 points.
The other two all-Championship team representatives, Stephanie Graff (game-high 15 points) and Irina Krasnoshiok (10) paced the Hawks.
Next up for the Owls is the anticipation of Selection Sunday, March 14.
Christopher A. Vito can be reached at DolphinsFan1085@aol.com.