STORRS, Conn. – The women’s basketball team’s first-round matchup in the NCAA Tournament pitted an upstart program against a winning tradition. The Owls, coach Dawn Staley said last week, needed to beat Tournament regular Louisiana Tech to start their own tradition.
Despite a sloppy first half, the sixth-seeded Owls notched a comeback win over the Techsters, 66-61, on Sunday to approach another milestone in this historical season.
The win was the Owls’ first Tournament victory in 16 years and first ever on the road. The only prior Tourney victory came against Holy Cross at McGonigle Hall in 1989.
Staley said Sunday’s victory over the Techsters will leave a lasting impression on the program’s history. The Owls (28-3) face Rutgers tonight for a chance to reach to the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history.
“This was a defining moment for our program, but it hasn’t defined our season,” Staley said. “Had we lost, this season would have still been just as special. We went up against tradition. Hopefully, we can start our own tradition of being in the NCAA Tournament from here on out.”
An old foe crept up in the first half. Before five minutes had elapsed, the Owls had committed seven turnovers, and had 12 at halftime. They finished the game with 17 giveaways.
The Owls averaged nearly 20 turnovers a game as a team through the season’s first eight games, but had appeared to remedy that problem late in the season. Senior guard Cynthia Jordan, suffering from an undisclosed arm injury, said the team’s ball-control problems involved her own loose handle on the ball.
“Some of it was my fault,” said Jordan, whose arm was heavily bandaged during the game. “I was putting the team in bad situations, but in the second half, we put on the pressure and got a lot of points in transition.”
With the Owls offensively vulnerable, La. Tech guard Tasha Crain took command. The junior shot 6-for-9 with 15 points in the first half.
The second half was a different tale.
The Owls headed into halftime trailing, 35-23. Early in the second half, they went on a 9-0 run to pull within three points. During that four-minute span, the Techsters (20-10) turned the ball over five times and missed all three field goal attempts. And the Owls weren’t through.
Senior guard Khadija Bowens gave the Owls their first lead of the game at 8:38 with a fastbreak layup. Bowens scored nine straight points, and served as a significantly taller line of defense against Crain. The 5-foot-11 Bowens took over the 5-foot-7 Jordan’s defensive assignemnt.
“[Crain] was a lot quicker than me, but I stayed between her and the basket and that made opportunities for me,” Bowens said. “I didn’t even know I scored nine straight. I was too much into the game to worry about that. I was worrying about Crain and poking the ball out.”
Whether against Bowens or Jordan, Crain single-handedly kept the Techsters close. Crain, the WAC Player of the Year, finished with a game-high 28 points, missing just four of her 16 shots. In the second half, she scored on four straight possessions.
Staley said junior center Candice Dupree, like the rest of the Owls defenders, had trouble defending Crain in the paint, but mixing defensive schemes seemed to work.
“We had to give her different looks inside,” Staley said. “We had to do something different with her. You have to try to limit her touches and make someone else beat you.”
Dupree, who hit one first-half field goal, erupted in the second half to finish with a team-high 20 points and 11 rebounds. Sophomore forward Kamesha Hairston (15 points), Bowens (13), senior forward Ari Moore (11) also finished in double figures.
HOME SWEET HOME
The Owls are fully aware of what’s at stake heading into tonight’s game. Beating Rutgers would put the Owls on their home floor against either Maryland or Ohio State on Easter Sunday, March 27. Staley said the home court advantage would be more than an added bonus; it would be a gift.
“What can make this [season] even more special is if we played at the Liacouras Center on Sunday,” Staley said. “It remains to be seen, and we’ll continue to fight to get there.”
The Scarlet Knights, a No. 3 seed in the Philadelphia Region, defeated Hartford to advance to second round. Tonight’s game will be a rematch of a Dec. 13 regular-season meeting. In that game, the Owls claimed their first win against a ranked team in over 16 years, beating the then-No. 22 Scarlet Knights, 71-60.
A notable difference between the two games will be the presence of Rutgers’ scoring leader, Cappie Pondexter, who missed the first game with an injury.
“Cappie is back, but I don’t think it will make much of a difference,” Dupree said. “We have to play them the way we did the first time we played them.”
Christopher A. Vito can be reached at email@example.com.