Tonya Cardoza had put the season in the books.
Despite watching her squad fight back to postseason eligibility by reaching the .500 mark, Temple’s seventh-year women’s basketball coach said she didn’t expect to receive a postseason bid, and wasn’t going to lead her team to believe the season would continue.
Nearly two weeks later, the Owls are headed to the Sweet 16 of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament after a 61-56 win against Big 5 rival University of Pennsylvania at the Palestra.
Despite the squad’s improved play against the Quakers, who beat the Owls 52-50 on Jan. 5, Cardoza said the message in practice before the tournament was to “start over” for next year, instead of preparing for any opponents.
“It wasn’t about postseason, it was about next year,” Cardoza said. “So everything we did in practice for those four days was about next year because I didn’t want them to get their hopes up.”
After nine days of waiting, the Owls were selected as an at-large team to participate in the WNIT for the first time since 2011-12.
With a matchup against North Carolina State on Thursday in the Sweet 16, sophomore Safiya Martin said the Owls will continue to use the same motivation that has driven the team all postseason – the fear of not playing basketball anymore.
“That feeling is giving us a burning fire inside of us,” Martin said. “After we lost to the East Carolina game, it was crossing our fingers and hoping we made the NIT … we know what it is to feel like our season is over and so we are going to fight.”
The postseason has given the Owls another chance to play, which Martin said has helped everyone focus.
“It’s one or done,” Martin said. “So it’s not like, ‘Oh we have tomorrow to get it right.’ So now it’s like, ‘Get everything right and pay attention,’ and everybody is doing that.”
After a 3-7 start to the season – including two losses more than 20 points to Georgetown and Rutgers universities, Martin said no one on the Owls would have envisioned this success.
“Earlier in the season, it was a little rough,” Martin said. “Nobody would have ever thought we would have made it this far. So to actually be here, in the Sweet 16 of NIT tournament – playing together, doing the little things, paying attention, communicating – it’s thrilling. I can’t even explain it.”
Despite all the early-season struggles, Cardoza knew that her young team of eight underclassmen needed to gain experience to “understand what we are doing.”
“Early on, we were losing games because we didn’t know how to play,” Cardoza said. “It was just foreign and new and even during that time, we were confident. All we needed was some more time.”
Cardoza also lauded her team’s resilience, as the early-season troubles didn’t deter them from a strong finish.
“It’s a credit to those guys for not giving up on the situation and believing in each other and keeping the faith and working really hard,” Cardoza said. “From the start, I tell them we are going to fight until the end and that’s why we are still here.”
Headed into the Sweet 16, sophomore guard Feyonda Fitzgerald said the team is playing its best basketball.
“I think we could do better, but as of now, I think we are doing very well because we are sticking together as a team and keeping each other up,” Fitzgerald said. “We are doing what we have to do. Everyone is doing their part.”
Michael Guise can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Michael_Guise.