For the sixth year in a row, the women’s basketball team is headed back to the NCAA Tournament.
The No.9-seeded Owls will face the No.8-seeded Florida Gators Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Storrs, Conn.
Yes, the same Storrs, Conn., where coach Tonya Cardoza’s former team, No.1-seeded Connecticut, resides and where she served as a 14-year assistant coach.
That matchup would loom large if the Owls and Huskies were to both make it past the first round.
But first thing’s first for Cardoza and her team.
“We’re not looking at UConn,” Cardoza said. “I don’t think anyone right now is looking at UConn. Right now, we’re just focused on our opponent, and right now, our opponent is Florida. When I was at Connecticut, we could do that and look past things. Right now, we’re not looking past Florida.”
The Gators defeated the Owls, 68-54, last season at the Liacouras Center.
In that game, four starters scored in double figures for Florida, which was led by then-junior guard Sha Brooks’ 23 points and then-junior forward Marshae Dotson’s 16 and nine rebounds.
This season, Brooks and Dotson are the only Gators to average in double figures, as Brooks scores 16.6 points per game and Dotson adds 13.7.
“Last year, it was a really good game,” senior forward Shenita Landry said. “They’re a very fast-paced team. I’m not sure if they’re deep. But they’re pretty fast, and they’re pretty good at the guard position.”
But the frontcourt could be one area the Owls could exploit against the Gators, as both Landry and fellow senior forward Shanea Cotton average in double figures, at 12.1 and 10.3 points per game, respectively. Together, they pull down an average of just about 15 rebounds a game.
But it’s the prior NCAA Tournament experience, like last year’s 61-54 loss to No.6-seed Arizona State in College Park, Md., that the seniors said will help them most on Sunday and that helped them withstand the tension while waiting for the bracket to be revealed last night.
“I mean, experience allows you to be more calm. When it’s your first time, you get nervous,” Landry said. “I was scared we weren’t going to make it in, and it would’ve hurt my heart, so I had to take it all in.
But this [NCAA Tournament appearance] has to be the best one. Freshman year, I knew we were getting in because we won the [Atlantic Ten Conference] Tournament. This year, we lost to teams we shouldn’t have, so this year is a little different. A lot of people didn’t expect us to get where we got or beat teams we beat. I don’t think people really believed in us.”
The Owls were picked to finish fourth in a preseason A-10 coaches’ poll, largely due to having a first-year coach in Cardoza.
“This is really sweet,” Cardoza said. “A lot of people said that was a gift for us, so the fact that we were able to finish second [in the A-10 regular season standings] and make it to the NCAA Tournament says a lot about us.”
The Owls gained that at-large bid thanks in part to key conference wins at Charlotte and George Washington and at home against then- No. 13 Xavier.
The Owls will be back at practice bright and early this morning at 6 a.m., trying to continue to prove those critics wrong.
“I’m going to feel it tomorrow at 6 a.m. practice,” freshman guard Kristen McCarthy said. “But that’s OK because a lot of teams don’t have practice tomorrow morning.”
Jennifer Reardon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.