TRENTON – The women’s basketball team checked into the NCAA Tournament on Sunday at noon. Two hours later, it checked out.
Hartford showed the Owls the door with a 64-58 first-round upset at the Sovereign Bank Arena. The loss not only ended the Owls season, but it also closed out the storied career of senior center Candice Dupree, one of the best players in program history.
In a way, the loss portrayed the Owls’ season. For every big win the team had captured, they had a disappointing setback. The Owls had beaten then-No. 17 Georgia and stunned then-No. 9 Rutgers to earn their first victory over a top 10 team. But the Owls (24-8) also had a few clunkers along the way in losing to Stony Brook and Richmond.
Now, a week after earning a somewhat unexpected NCAA Tournament sixth seed – a testament to the program’s success in recent years – the Owls fell in the first round for the third time in their last four trips to the Big Dance.
The Owls had hoped to take the next step and make the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history. Instead, the Owls will return to class and the 11th-seeded Hawks will play Georgia tonight in the second round.
Coach Dawn Staley said she told her team she had no regrets.
“I told them that I enjoyed the journey,” Staley said. “I told them that they made me a better coach, [with] the good, the bad, the ugly. We struggled with leadership all season, and it got better at the end of the season, but I hope that they would come to embrace this journey that we had this year, and use it in a way that would make them successful.”
The Hawks consistently penetrated the Owls’ interior defense while shooting 44 percent from the floor. The Hawks, who entered the game with an offense ranked 122nd in the nation, outscored the Owls in the paint, 44-32. Forward Danielle Hood led the team with 20 points while guard Erika Messam added 17.
“We certainly didn’t adjust to it, just individual play,” Staley said of the Hawks’ offense. “When you have a situation like that, you have to woman-up and play, or else you go home. We didn’t do that for 40 minutes, and they took advantage of it.”
Dupree faced double- and triple-coverage, which kept her from taking control of the Owls’ offense the way she had throughout the Atlantic Ten Conference tournament. Her 11 points was her lowest performance in her last eight games.
“I just don’t think we had enough movement in our offense to make those kind of shots when they were triple-teaming me,” Dupree said. “I don’t think it was any different than anything I had ever seen.”
Five minutes into the game, the sloppiness that had plagued the Owls at times this season took over. Four of their next five possessions ended in turnovers and the Hawks (27-3) built a five-point lead, at 14-9.
The Owls rebounded with a 13-4 run over the game’s next seven minutes to take a 22-18 lead. But the final five minutes of the period were Hartford’s, as Temple failed to score and turned the ball over four times. The Owls finished the first half down, 25-24.
The Hawks were hot upon entering the second half. They scored on 12 of their first 14 possessions to take a 51-40 lead with about 10 minutes remaining. Though the Owls shot 41 percent, they simply couldn’t find a solution to the Hawks’ low-post game.
“We knew they were going to try and penetrate with the ball on the floor, and things like that,” Dupree said. “But I don’t know if we were necessarily ready to play it. I think we lacked too much defensively as far as post-play went. They used it to their advantage.”
The Owls battled back, stopping the Hawks five consecutive times, transferring the momentum onto their offense to pull within 51-47. Hartford coach Jennifer Rizzotti called a timeout to settle down her team.
It worked temporarily. The Hawks took an eight-point lead with 4:33 to play. But the Owls would not go away. Senior guard Khadija Bowens capped a 9-1 Temple run with a three-point play that tied the game at 58 with about two minutes to play.
“I thought we had control of the game,” junior forward Kamesha Hairston said, “but, obviously not.”
On the possession prior to Bowens’ scoring play, Dupree hit a layup. It marked her last points in a Temple uniform. The all-America candidate ended her Temple career second all-time in points and blocks, and third all-time in rebounds.
But her stellar career did not finish with a stellar ending. After the Hawks regained a 60-58 lead, the Owls failed to score again.
“It was a tough loss,” Dupree said. “I would have liked to have made it past the second round, but, I mean, it didn’t work that way.”
Staley was disappointed with the end to Dupree’s career.
“You want somebody, who has had a storied career like Candice, to go out probably at the pinnacle of our program, which is getting past the second round,” she said.
John Kopp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.