Sophomore forward Kristen McCarthy and the women’s basketball team opened up their season Friday night on the right foot, besting the Illinois Fighting Illini, 82-78, in thrilling come-from-behind fashion.
Early on, it looked as if Temple was on its way to an easy win, as the Owls stormed out of the gates with a 9-3 run.
The Fighting Illini lived up their name, however, as they bounced back with a 12-2 run of their own, putting the score at 15-11. Illinois never trailed again in regulation, with the keyword there being regulation.
The remainder of the first half belonged to the Illini, as the Owls shot a pedestrian 28.6 percent from the field to go along with 10 turnovers.
“In the first half, [Illinois] did the same thing the whole time,” coach Tonya Cardoza said. “We never really attacked. We just stood around and let them dictate.”
Despite trailing 43-26 at halftime, the Owls never lost confidence, senior forward Jasmine Stone said.
“Nobody had their head down,” Stone said. “Coach had faith in us. She told us it was a whole different half, and that’s how we went out there.”
“We thought about staying together,” junior guard Shaqwedia Wallace added. “The game started off really strong, and we sort of lost everything we were doing. We went back into halftime, and we put it all back together.”
Staying true to their halftime mentality, the Owls rallied to bring the score to 74-72 with 48.8 seconds remaining in the second half. Illinois center Jenna Smith drew a foul underneath the basket shortly after and went to the line to shoot two free throws. The former All-American and preseason All-Big Ten selection missed her second free throw, putting the Illini up by a mere three points.
McCarthy launched a 3-point attempt with 15 seconds remaining and was fouled hard in the process, giving her the opportunity to tie the game at the line. In a truly clutch act, McCarthy made all three of her free throws, tying the game and sending the remaining fans at McGonigle Hall into a frenzy.
The crowd, which was loud all game, was a big part of the win, Cardoza said.
“The crowd was into it. We heard them,” Cardoza said. “It was a college atmosphere. They were loud, they were supportive, and we thrived off of it. They helped us out today. Their energy level helped us out today.”
After a missed last-second shot by the Illini, the two teams entered overtime tied at 75-75.
Riding their momentum, the Owls sealed the deal in overtime, outscoring the Illini 7-2, with Stone scoring four of her seven points in the extra period.
Wallace, who entered the season as Temple’s second leading returning scorer, led all players with 27 points on 9-for-18 shooting.
Smith, a 6-foot-3-inch senior from Bloomington, Minn., led Illinois with 24 points and 10 rebounds.
“[Smith is] really tough,” Stone said. “The first half, she was getting aggressive with us. The second half, we started getting physical with her, and I don’t think she liked getting pushed around.”
“If she wants to be physical with us, I’m going to be physical with her,” Stone added with a grin.
Senior guard LaKeisha Eaddy, Temple’s leading returning scorer, was held scoreless in the first half and finished the game with nine points on 2-for-12 shooting. The fact that Temple could pull off a stunning comeback without Eaddy playing her best was encouraging, Cardoza said.
“I don’t care who scores,” Cardoza said. “That’s the type of offense we have. There’s no one person that we set up to score the ball every time down. Whoever’s open gets to shoot the ball. As long as we have the ball movement and we take open shots, I don’t care who’s the leading scorer.”
Eaddy did manage to put her teammates in position to score, however, as she dished out 10 assists in 39 minutes of play.
Cardoza decided to start freshman Natasha Thames over freshman Victoria Macaulay at center, despite stating in the preseason that Macaulay would likely start. The decision was largely due to Smith’s presence, Cardoza said.
“[Smith] probably outweighs [Macaulay] by about 30, 40 pounds,” Cardoza said. “Victoria is big, meaning long, but she gets pushed around. Once she gets stronger, I definitely think Victoria is going to be a great player here at Temple.”
Temple’s next challenge comes in the form of the Auburn Tigers, who will visit McGonigle Hall on Tuesday for a 7 p.m. showdown.
Game notes: Wallace’s 27 points were a career high. Her previous high of 26 was set against Villanova on Dec. 20, 2008…McCarthy’s 19 points marked the third time she’s had 19 points in a game in her career… Cardoza is now 2-0 in her coaching career against Illinois… The Owls shot a mere 37.1 percent for the game, compared to Illinois’ 50 percent mark…The difference was in the turnover department, where the Owls bested the Illini 28-15.
Kyle Gauss can be reached at email@example.com