For the typical women’s basketball program, it can be a crowning achievement to go 13-1 in conference play, and reach the final four in the league. For the Temple women’s basketball team, it was just another standard season.
A program rich in success, that hoisted the Atlantic Ten Conference Championship trophy from 2004-2006, expects big things. While 2006-2007 was a triumphant year for the Owls, it also seemed to end prematurely, without the familiar March hardware.
Last season’s near clean sweep of the A-10 in the regular season was only bested by George Washington. The Colonials narrowly knocked off the Owls, 56-53, last February in Washington, D.C., to finish 14-0 in the conference.
However, upsets aplenty would lace the A-10 Playoffs and third-seeded Xavier would go on to defeat both the Owls and Colonials on its way to winning the conference championship.
Now as another year of conference play reaches the Liacouras Center, the competition has improved, and the Owls are no longer the perennial favorites. That title could surely change, however, after the Owls sensational 6h8-66 victory over conference heavyweight and 20th-ranked George Washington.
In a preseason A-10 coach’s poll, the Owls (9-10, 2-1 A-10) were picked to finish fourth in the conference. Topping the list were George Washington (14-4, 2-1) and a second place tie between Xavier (12-6, 2-1) and Charlotte (12-7, 3-0). All have made solid starts to the season, but know the perils of matching up against division rivals, especially on the road.
“I think it’s hard when you’re 13th in the country and you’ve beaten teams like Auburn [and] Texas A&M, some of the non-conference teams we’ve beat, you’re the target of everybody’s best shot. The road is always tough,” said George Washington coach Joe McKeown, who has spent 19 years on the sideline for the Colonials.
The Owls have had their own tribulations in foreign gyms throughout the season.
Away from home Temple has faltered, going 1-6, albeit against some of the nation’s best.
Both early conference wins have come in the confines of the Liacouras Center, a place where the Owls seem to play their best basketball.
Luckily for the Owls, the A-10 Championship will be held rather close to home at St. Joseph’s Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse. Unfortunately, the Owls have six remaining conference road voyages to make before the postseason begins.
“You go back to the experience. [Senior Ashley Morris] never really started and played significant minutes on the road in conference play,” Temple coach Dawn Staley said. “She’s had some good games here and there but out the gate she wasn’t on the floor. It’s hard, home is where you try and take care of business and hopefully you can bottle it up and take some of that on the road. I think we know how to win, we just got to learn how to do it on the road.”
The two conference opponents that have visited North Philadelphia have a combined record of 26-10. Both St. Bonaventure and George Washington have left in defeat.
Jim Crowley, who is in his 12th year as St. Bonaventure’s coach, knows firsthand the evolving landscape of the A-10. He said he believes this year’s league has more depth than ever, and sees the Owls as a team to watch out for.
“As long as they got Dawn on the sideline they always got a shot,” Crowley said. “Her adjustment ability within [the] game and her ability to utilize the talent she has is so underrated. She’s a very, very good tactical basketball coach, and their size and how hard those big kids play makes them very difficult to guard. No one has three [or] four athletic kids like that that just keep coming to the boards.”
Looking ahead, the Owls have back-to-back road games on Wednesday, and Sunday against Richmond and Rhode Island, respectively. Two other key games will be on the road against a powerful Xavier squad, and at rival Saint Joseph’s (10-8, 2-1), both games coming in mid-February.
Staley realizes that an opportunity is available, but the Owls will need to focus more than ever to surpass a challenging group of A-10 opponents.
“I think people are bringing back just more experienced players,” she said. “Besides us I think we’re a team that are bringing some experienced players back but not experienced players who have played significant minutes for us. Overall I think the league is a lot richer than it’s been in the past.”
All in all, it will be a difficult, but attainable quest to retain the glory of an A-10 championship season. With a core of veteran leaders and progressing role players, the Owls will try to plant framework for another cherished dynasty.
Anthony Stipa can be reached at email@example.com.