Games like these can sometimes be the toughest. After sending a scare into two of the nation’s top five teams in a span of five days, the women’s basketball team came home Wednesday night to face a Morgan State team searching for its first victory.
After watching the Owls make it tough on themselves with sloppy play and turnovers in the early going, coach Dawn Staley pulled all five starters just 3 minutes and 15 seconds into the game. She gave them strict messages on the bench, and from the results, the mass substitution was effective.
The starters returned at intervals throughout the first half to steal the momentum and ultimately put the Bears away, 72-52.
“[Staley] did that to make us think, because we weren’t ready to play,” junior forward Kamesha Hairston said of the early benching. “We took this team lightly and that was the sign we got when she pulled us all. Some got the message, some didn’t. I knew she meant business.”
Hairston and senior forward Ari Moore led the first half comeback. Moore had six points and seven rebounds by halftime. In particular, her play on the boards helped the Owls (3-2) spark fast breaks and expose a significantly slower Bears squad.
The Owls took their first lead of the game with 8:46 left in the first half and never looked back. They closed out the half with an 18-4 run. They held Morgan State without a point in the final 4:31 to take a 32-19 halftime advantage.
“We try to do things difficult, and that never seems to work in our favor,” Staley said. “We had 17 turnovers, [but only] six in the second half. That right there is something to be proud of. We have to take little steps.”
The Owls ended the Bears’ comeback hopes with another run early in the second half. Candice Dupree shook off a slow first half to score eight of the Owls’ first 13 second half points. Her final bucket of the night gave the Owls a 45-21 lead with 14:06 remaining.
With the comfortable lead in hand, Staley began to empty her bench with over ten minutes left. She let her reserves, who had kept the Owls within striking distance while the starters sat in the first half, finish out the night.
“Tonight was an ugly win, but we’ll take it,” Moore said. “It is disappointing because we want to consider ourselves an elite team. To take Morgan State lightly for 20 minutes isn’t what great teams do, and that’s what we are trying to work on.”
Lightning-quick freshman guard Ashley Morris was the highlight of the second unit. On one possession, Morris nabbed a rebound, slashed to the hole, and hit a floater as she was fouled. She hit the free throw to complete the three-point play.
“[Coach Staley] teaches me things I could never imagine,” Morris said. “I thought I had learned it all. I learn every day in practice how to be a smarter player because of Coach. She makes running the floor seem so much easier.”
Tomorrow, the Owls travel to Florida to clash with the 2-2 Gators. The Owls return home on Wednesday to take on inner-city rival Penn before hosting No. 16 Rutgers on Friday.
If the Owls are successful in the next two weeks, they might find themselves in the national rankings.
The Owls are currently just outside of the top 25, but looking in. The Owls garnered top 25 votes in both the AP and ESPN/USA Today polls.
“I think it’s good for the players to see, but I don’t get into it,” Staley said of the national recognition. “It means we’re moving in the right direction. It means we’re getting noticed for what we’re doing.”
One thing that may keep the Owls out of the top 25 is their inability to hold onto the ball. In five games this season, the Owls have 104 turnovers.
Normally steady senior point guard Cynthia Jordan has been losing the ball often. After committing zero turnovers in the first game against Brown, Jordan has committed 24 in the last four games.
“[Turnovers are] something that has really plagued us this particular year,” Staley said. “I think it’s just focus. We’re making bad decisions. We have to stay focused on making the easy play.”
Jonathan Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.