Temple’s women’s basketball team has been in a defensive state of mind.
In the 11 games the Owls (11-8, 6-2) played during winter recess, opponents averaged a mere 57.3 points per game. That includes an 83-76 loss to St. Bonaventure, the second most points allowed by the Owls this season.
The winter recess served as a test for the Owls. They began the break by losing the first two games on the road including a lopsided 86-66 loss to Santa Clara. The team then returned home to capture the Temple Holiday Classic with wins over Maryland-Eastern Shore and Mississippi, which propelled them to a five-game win streak.
One of their first real challenges in the Atlantic 10 Conference came against A-10 West leader George Washington. The Owls left D.C. with a 54-53 loss in a battle that ended on a last second put back for the Colonials.
Temple then lost to St. Bonaventure, after defeating the Bonnies the previous week at home. The Owls lost that game on the defensive side of the ball, failing to make stops when needed.
The loss to St. Bonaventure has been one of the rare defensive letdowns for head coach Dawn Staley’s squad, a team that normally plays well following losses.
“You know the mark of a team is how you respond,” said Staley following her teams 59-41 win over Fordham on Jan. 24.
The Owls have responded well, not only following losses, but in the clutch. Against conference rival St. Joe’s, Temple point guard Stacey Smalls took control of the game in the second half after a brief comeback by the Hawks.
Smalls scored seven straight points in one stretch, including two lay-ups in which the junior guard took the ball the length of the court untouched. Smalls finished the game with 16 points, four assists and three steals to go along with a solid defensive performance. The Hawks starting backcourt scored a dismal 11 points.
“Our defensive intensity has picked up a lot more since last year,” said Smalls, who is averaging 10.3 PPG and 2.5 APG. “I think we’ve learned a lot defensively and now we’ve got our techniques and principles down.”
The Owls have used various full and half court presses, which has lead opponents to turn the ball over 418 times for an average of 22 forced turnovers a game. The Owls have also done a fine job converting on those turnovers by jump starting their transition game.
“I think for us we turn the corner somewhat offensively as a team. We have to get to the basket and we’ve been attacking the basket better,” Staley said following the Fordham game. “We’re not coming down and setting up-we’re not a setup basketball team.”
The Owls rely on their defense to create offense. Shooting 36.9 percent from the field this season, it is mesmerizing that Temple currently shares a three-way tie for first place in the A-10 East with St. Joseph’s and St. Bonaventure.
Disregarding the teams’ shooting percentage, the Owls have come through when necessary and players have been feeding off each other’s energy. This intense style of play has allowed Staley to play the entire squad consistently throughout the season, always creating matchup problems for opponents and allowing her starters to catch a breather.
But don’t factor out what the Owls are capable of doing in a setup half-court offense. Senior guard Natalia Isaac, who leads the team in scoring with 12.5 points per game, can be deadly from behind the arc, while senior center Lisa Jakubowicz has become more of a factor in the post as well as the short corner. Junior guard Regan Apo has also enhanced the offense at times when coming off the bench with her smooth stroke.
Freshman Ari Moore has also been in the box score and an early bloomer. She has been playing a key role off the bench utilizing her body on the boards and in the paint.
“It was tough at the beginning but now that I’m starting to know my role on the team, which is basically an off the bench player, I’m finding my niche,” said Moore who is contributing 3.1 points and 2.0 rebounds in the 10 minutes she averages per game. Moore had a career best 12 points and five rebounds against Fordham.
And don’t forget about senior forward Athena Christoforakis. She has been the offensive focal point and has terrorized opponents under the glass and in the lane accounting for 11.6 points and 8.2 boards a game.
Opponents who have concentrated on stopping Christoforakis in the paint haven’t had much luck this season, overlooking the fact that she is a multi-dimensional player who can hurt you around the perimeter as well.
Christoforakis is shooting 44 percent from the floor. Against St. Joe’s, the Hawks failed to put a hand in her face while along the perimeter.
“I like to shoot those open shots,” Christoforakis said. “Actually I was a little surprised they left me open on top. But you know they left me open so I knocked them down.”
Christoforakis is also shooting 69 percent from the free-throw line.
Having spent most of the winter break together, the teams’ chemistry and trust has been enhanced, which couldn’t have come at a better time than now as the Owls prepare for their second leg of conference play.
They will practice this week in preparation for Sunday’s game against Richmond, who leads the conference in scoring defense. They will work on strategies on both sides of the ball, watch some film, and learn their matchups.
But the one thing the team needs to work on is holding onto a lead after establishing one, something that cannot be learned on the practice court, but instead with a little patience.
“When we have a lead we need to take advantage of the lead,” Christoforakis said. “We need to slow down and not rush anything and execute with what’s working.”