STORRS, Conn. -When they arrived here last weekend for the first and second round games of the NCAA Tournament, the members of the women’s basketball team wore t-shirts that read, “Eighty minutes to Philly.” The message: survive the first two rounds and earn at least one more home game.
But the six-seeded Owls saw their magical season come to a close last night, falling to No. 3 seed Rutgers, 61-54, at Connecticut’s Gampel Pavilion. A win would have propelled the Owls into the first Regional semifinal in program history. That game will be held at the Liacouras Center on Sunday, but the Owls will not be playing in it.
For the Owls (28-4), the hottest team in the nation coming in, the dejection after the loss was amplified. A 25-game win streak that kept the Owls out of the loss column since Dec. 4 came to an end.
“For me, it’s the end,” said senior forward Ari Moore, who cried openly after fouling out late in the second half. “It’s upsetting to lose, but I’m a part of a great season and I’m not going to let this one loss define this season. I didn’t want to go out like that, fouling out.”
Moore was the lone Owl to foul out, but wasn’t the only player to get into foul trouble. Fellow starters Cynthia Jordan and Kamesha Hairston each had committed four fouls with more than eight minutes to play, forcing coach Dawn Staley to go to a largely ineffective bench.
The Owls were plagued by poor defense on the Rutgers jump-shooters in the first half and well into the second. They allowed the Scarlet Knights (27-6) to shoot a blistering 63 percent in the first 20 minutes. But the Owls pulled within grasp of the lead late in the game with brief hot shooting of their own.
With less than two minutes to play, the Owls scored on three of four possessions to pull within six points, 58-52, but freshman guard Ashley Morris’ three-point attempt with 46 seconds to play fell short of the rim.
Just like that, the Owls’ four-month hot streak finally ran cold. Had Morris hit her attempt from beyond the arc, Staley said, the game might have finished differently.
“I’m a praying woman, so I kind of prayed a little bit when she took it,” Staley said. “If that ball would have dropped, I think we would have seen maybe a different basketball game. When you get that close, a [higher seed] usually gets tighter on the other end. But either way, I still thought we were in the game.”
Rutgers junior Cappie Pondexter, who missed the teams’ first meeting Dec. 13 for unspecified reasons, was a force for the Scarlet Knights. Pondexter created space in the lane en route to a game-high 25 points, while adding six rebounds, five assists, and five steals. After the game, Pondexter said she was not hurt by junior center Candice Dupree’s insistence Monday that the Owls would not alter their scheme to give Pondexter more attention on defense.
“It’s a mutual respect between two great players,” Pondexter said of her relationship with Dupree. “I don’t think she meant anything by it. I showed that I’m not ready to go home yet.”
Jordan, a senior, finished with a team-high 15 points in her final game as an Owl. Moore had 13 points in her last game in a Temple uniform. Dupree joined the two in double figures with 11.
Christopher A. Vito can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.