When the Owls needed a game-winning basket in last season’s first-round NCAA tournament loss to the University of Oregon, they gave the ball to the fourth All-American in program history.
They gave the ball to the program’s career assists leader.
They gave the ball to Feyonda Fitzgerald.
Temple won’t have that luxury during the 2017-18 season. The former WNBA second-round pick is playing professionally in Poland.
Temple also won’t have Donnaizha Fountain, who started 21 games last season and averaged 14.1 points per game. She joined Seton Hall University as a graduate transfer in April.
The Owls held their first practice on Wednesday in their practice gym on the third floor of Pearson Hall. Eight players who have never played in a regular-season game for Temple, including six freshmen, participated in drills.
“I feel like we’re going to be a great team,” senior guard Alliya Butts said. “We have a lot of young talent, but I feel like we can build off what we did last year with the young guys and just make it a great season again.”
The Owls are looking to reach back-to-back NCAA tournaments for the first time since they qualified every year from 2004-11. Fitzgerald and Fountain are two of four players who are no longer on the team that started more than half of the games in the 2016-17 season. Former forward Ruth Sherrill started 25 games, and former center Safiya Martin started every game.
Sophomore forward Shantay Taylor and sophomore center Shannen Atkinson are stronger and more confident than they were last year, junior guard Khadijah Berger said. Both players each made one start last year.
The team took a trip to Rome and Paris in August to take a class and play three games. The Owls wanted to “get a feel for each other’s style of play, where someone likes the ball, where they don’t like the ball and [their] strengths and weaknesses,” Berger said. Freshman forward Mia Davis led the team with 15 points per game and averaged 12.7 rebounds.
All of the team’s guards, including Georgetown University graduate transfer Mykia Jones, freshman twins Nicolette and Emani Mayo and freshman Desiree Oliver — an ESPN top-100 player from the high school Class of 2017 — rotated bringing the ball up the floor.
“I think we have 14 guys on our team, and everyone has a role that they have to play,” coach Tonya Cardoza said. “We know how well we played last year, and it’s not going to be one guy filling a role. It’s going to be a collective unit, and we’ll just be different in how we play, how we approach things.”
“I feel like if you could get into the starting five that’s great, but it’s about the role players that we need too,” said senior guard Tanaya Atkinson, who led Temple in rebounding last season. “So I feel like that’s perfect. It’s a win-win situation for everybody who came in because we did lose some key players, but I feel like we gained a few. So I think we’re going to be alright.”
If the Owls are going to get to the NCAA tournament, they’ll have to survive a formidable schedule. They’ll face the University of South Carolina, the defending Division I champion, on Dec. 21 at the Liacouras Center and perennial power and American Athletic Conference opponent Connecticut twice.
Temple will also play conference school South Florida, which made its third NCAA tournament appearance in a row last season, twice in January. The other 2017 NCAA tournament teams on the schedule are Hampton University and Penn.
The schedule is tough, but it also works in the Owls’ favor. Temple will play 10 of its first 12 games at either McGonigle Hall or the Liacouras Center and will host 19 of its 29 games.
In the past two seasons, Temple has posted a 24-5 record in home games.
“I feel like [playing at home] gives us energy and momentum to come out and want to do better, make people want to come back and watch us more,” Berger said. “And I feel like being that we have so many home games this year, we have a great chance of getting back to the NCAA tournament and making it further.”
During a drill on Tuesday, Butts fell to the floor after a layup attempt and grabbed her right knee in pain. A trainer helped her off the floor, and she gingerly walked up and down the sideline and did stretches.
Butts missed the next few drills, but she was running again by the end of practice, per Associate Director of Strategic Communications Lauren Ferrett.