The feeling in the locker room was something Tyonna Williams has never felt before.
After the Owls’ 69-57 win against Middle Tennessee State University on Sunday, Temple is in the semifinals of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament.
For the senior playing the final games of her collegiate career, the feeling is something she can’t explain.
“I don’t really think you can describe that kind of moment,” Williams said. “It was exciting, it was happiness. I don’t even know. It’s like, ‘Wow we are standing here and going to the Final Four of the NIT.’ It’s crazy and almost breathtaking.”
Now just two wins away from being crowned WNIT champions, the Owls are playing their best basketball of the year, reeling off four straight wins. With wins against favored WNIT opponents, the Owls have capitalized on their second chance.
Once unsure of their postseason chances, the Owls have considered themselves a cinderella team.
“Coach [Tonya Cardoza] has talked about it,” Williams said. “We were one of the last four in, and now we’re [one of] the last four standing in the tournament. It goes to show that anything is possible.”
“We are looking great now,” Fitzgerald said. “Everyone is competing and giving it their all. I feel like this is a great lead-up to next year.”
Cardoza has noticed more attention to detail, which she said is one of the driving forces behind the team’s strong play.
“I definitely think they are focusing on the game plan more,” Cardoza said. “Early in the year, we really didn’t pay attention to it. We took it for granted. But now, in this stage, everyone sees how important it is.”
Cardoza also said the team has put more effort on the defensive end. During the regular season, the Owls allowed 65 points per game. In WNIT play, North Carolina State is the only team to score more than 60 points on the Owls.
“Everyone knows how important it is to make sure we are doing a good job defensively and knowing how we are going to defend people,” Cardoza said. “We are locked in better than we were early on.”
For a team that started the year 3-7 and is now 20-16, the Owls – in the postseason for the first time since 2011-12 – have taken advantage of their WNIT berth. The team’s current four-game winning streak is its longest of the season – which players attribute to a changed mentality during the postseason run.
“It’s everyone’s mindset,” Fitzgerald said. “The fact we are in the postseason … [we] want to make the best of this opportunity.”
As her career winds down, Williams said it’s better late than never.
“Honestly, I don’t know [what is clicking] and I really don’t care,” Williams said with a laugh. “As long as we’ve got it, as long as we’re here – and right now we’re here – we just want to enjoy the moment.”
Williams said she always knew her team had potential. But, it took until the end of the season for it to realize it.
“This is the team we have been waiting for and we just picked the perfect time to show it,” Williams said. “We’ve been staying together and keeping our composure.
For a team with only three active upperclassmen, Williams said this postseason is a learning experience for the program’s younger players. Williams is the lone senior on a team that will return everyone on the roster, including transfers Ruth Sherrill and Donnaizha Fountain.
“This is all the momentum in the world they need,” Williams said. “I told them that this is the stepping stone to get in the NCAAs next year … [WNIT] is not enough.”
Fitzgerald agrees that this postseason run will pay off next season for the Owls, who have not made it to the NCAA tournament since the 2010-11 season.
“I feel like we can do big things,” Fitzgerald said. “If we put our minds to it and have that mindset … next year we can be something really great.”
Michael Guise can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Michael_Guise.