For three straight days of practice, the Owls didn’t touch a basketball.
Coach Tonya Cardoza’s main concern with the team is not shooting or dribbling or controlling the ball on offense. Rather, Cardoza sees defense as Temple’s downfall. So for three consecutive days, the team worked solely on improving defensive skills.
“From past years, we’ve done things like this before where we don’t touch a ball and just focus on defense,” senior guard Tanaya Atkinson said. “But we grew from it, and it’s about how we grow from not touching a ball.”
The Owls (9-9, 1-5 American Athletic Conference) are on a four-game losing streak despite scoring more than 70 points three times. If they had stuck to their defensive plan of holding opponents to 60 points or fewer, the Owls would likely be sitting in a very different position than 11th of 12 teams in their conference.
Temple’s opponents have scored more than 60 points in 13 of its 18 games. Opponents average 71.7 points per game, which places Temple as the second-worst team in The American in scoring defense. The last-place team, Houston (15-6, 4-3 The American), has a plus-4.1 scoring margin, while Temple’s is negative 4.2.
“They always wind up scoring more than we’re supposed to hold them to,” freshman forward Mia Davis said. “It’s kind of frustrating not meeting our goal and giving up all those points.”
Cardoza attributes some of the team’s defensive woes to inexperience. Temple has six freshmen on the team, with four who rotate in and out of starting positions.
Davis has started every game, freshman forward Breanna Perry has started 15, freshman guard Emani Mayo has started 14 and freshman guard Desiree Oliver has averaged 21.4 minutes per game in nine games off the bench.
“When Tanaya was a freshman, she had more guys that understood what was going on, so other people could talk them through things,” Cardoza said. “Right now, they’re talking themselves through it and they don’t know.”
Atkinson has led by example and by communicating with the team and further explaining scenarios as they happen. Atkinson leads the team with 9.6 rebounds and 6.2 defensive rebounds per game. She also leads the team in steals with 1.4 per game.
The Owls, however, average less than six steals per game, which places them 11th in The American.
“Most times we go for steals, we don’t get them and it breaks down the defense even more,” Davis said. “Then it’s frustrating to have to get back and figure out who else needs to be guarded.”
Even though both Atkinson and Davis sit atop the list of individual conference leaders in rebounds at first and fourth, respectively, Cardoza said Temple’s rebounding game can’t make up for its lack of steals.
“If we’re getting steals, it means there’s an opportunity that we’re getting buckets at the other end,” Cardoza said. “Just getting a rebound, the defense can still be set. And in the past, we were really good at stealing the ball…because we were good defenders. It’s hard to get steals if you’re not a good defensive team.”
Despite the defensive difficulties the team has had thus far, the Owls are optimistic they will improve. Davis said taking three days to focus only on defense has pushed her and her teammates to “lock in.”
Atkinson also thinks that the extra practice will help solidify the team’s expectations on defense and instill discipline in the group. Every time a defensive mistake was made, the whole squad had to do a sprint.
“People are actually wanting to play defense now,” Atkinson said. “Usually there was a little hassle about it, but now I feel like people are ready to play defense. When [Cardoza] tells us to do a defensive drill, you have people sprinting to get on first. I feel like that’s definitely a plus.”