DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA — After the buzzer sounded following Temple’s first round NCAA tournament game, senior guard Feyonda Fitzgerald crouched down on the court at Cameron Indoor Stadium, overcome with emotion as she tried to hold back tears.
The Owls had just lost 71-70 to the University of Oregon. The team’s season ended with Fitzgerald’s last-second layup attempt getting blocked at the buzzer.
Fitzgerald and her fellow seniors — center Safiya Martin and forwards Ruth Sherrill and Monasia Bolduc — played in Temple’s first NCAA tournament game since 2011, but couldn’t have another deep postseason run after reaching the quarterfinals of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament in 2016 and the semifinals in 2015.
For Fitzgerald and Martin, who both spent four years at Temple, this game was tangible proof of the program’s growth.
“You work hard throughout the year, each year,” Fitzgerald said. “Throughout the summer we held each other accountable and did what we had to do to get better as individuals and as a team collectively. It so happened we got better over the years and were able to make the NCAA Tournament this year.”
In Fitzgerald and Martin’s freshman season, the Owls finished with a losing record for the first time in 11 years. They finished the 2013-14 season with a 14-16 record, winning eight of 18 American Athletic Conference games. Temple didn’t make a postseason tournament that year.
Junior guards Tanaya Atkinson, Alliya Butts and Khadijah Berger came to Temple as freshmen the next season. The Owls went 20-17 and qualified for the WNIT, a step below the NCAA Tournament. They made a run to the WNIT semifinals.
Having already been to the WNIT, the Owls had hoped to make the NCAA tournament last year, but they just missed out on receiving a bid.
The Owls worked hard to change the outcome this time around. Temple had a 12-game win streak and recorded its first national rank since the 2005-06 season. The Owls also notched four Top 50 Ratings Percentage Index wins and ended the season ranked No. 18 in RPI.
“I feel like we took postseason and preseason seriously and worked hard to get better,” Atkinson said. “It was basically mind over matter at this point just to get our coaches and seniors to the NCAA Tournament. I think us working hard paid off. It’s a great feeling now that we’re in the NCAA Tournament.”
Fitzgerald scored 16 points and added five rebounds and six assists in the loss against Oregon. She put the Owls up by one with 16 seconds left when she pulled up from the free throw line and knocked down a midrange jump shot.
When Oregon responded with a bucket to retake the lead, Fitzgerald had the opportunity for a career-defining play. With her team down by one with five seconds left, she drove to the hope and went up for a seemingly open shot. It was blocked, and time expired.
Fitzgerald ended her career as Temple’s all-time assists leader. She is also the second-leading scorer in Temple history.
“For me, it’ll take a little bit [to get over the loss], but for them it’ll take a bit longer, especially Feyonda as she was the guy with the ball in her hands,” coach Tonya Cardoza said. “Hopefully, there will be a lot of positive things that happen in her basketball career. For the seniors, this is going to be something that they live with as this was their only opportunity and to have it cut that short in this type of game.”
While the seniors will be gone next year, Cardoza is optimistic for another successful season. Temple will add four-star point guard Desiree Oliver from Penn Hills High School in Pittsburgh. She is ranked 94th in the espnW Top 100.
Cardoza was impressed by Butts’ season-high 28-point performance and the intensity with which she played.
“She played with a lot of confidence, and when Alliya’s making shots, she just feels like no one can stop her,” Cardoza said. “I like that she competed. That’s just something positive going into next year that she can definitely feed off of.”
Maura Razanauskas can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @CaptainAMAURAca.