Guru's Report: Some Temple Growth in Face of Stewart's Big Night for UConn
By Mel Greenberg
PHILADELPHIA -- With the powerful University of Connecticut women’s basketball program being the ultimate measuring stick these days, the rest of the nation has different ways of how Huskies oppnents see themselves against the yardstick.
When the marquee matchups with the top-ranked, undefeated, and defending NCAA champions occur, such as this season’s already-completed games involving the nationally-ranked group of Stanford, Maryland, Penn State, California, Duke, Baylor and Rutgers (at the time), the gauge is to determine the opposition’s worth to make deep runs in the NCAA tournament down the road.
When it comes to Temple, such as in Tuesday night’s second American Athletic Conference season meeting here between the two at McGonigle Hall, the Owls are simply trying to establish if they are on the right track as a program.
Thus while the final lopsided result of 93-56 highlighted by UConn sophomore Breanna Stewart’s career-high 39 points would lead one to believe the days when the Owls (10-10, 4-5 American Athletic) were part of the national discussion are no more, signs of vibrancy in the future did occur.
First, start with the setting.
A while back, glances at the Temple schedule indicating the game here with the Huskies (22-0, 9-0) would be in tiny McGonigle Hall, which has been refurbished, instead of the larger Liacouras Center, made many whether the move was a backwards step for the Owls.
But Tuesday’s event proved to be quite the opposite.
The lively crowd of 2,030 (capacity is 3,900) set a single game record forTemple women’s basketball in the building eclipsing the 1,900 that came to see No. 2 Virginia in the early part of 1991-92 season when then-senior all-American and local great Dawn Staley – a future Temple and South Carolina coach, as well as Hall of Famer – paid a homecoming visit with the Cavaliers.
The same number watching UConn making it 28 straight, dating to near the end of last season, would have seemed lost in the 10,000-seat Liacouras Center.
Furthermore, press row was jammed with the usual large contingent that travels with Connecticut along with representatives from every local media organization except The PhiladelphiaInquirer.
Adjustments were made to accommodate working conditions and everyone was satisfied with the arrangement.
And though the 18-4 start by Connecticut in the first five minutes of Tuesday’s game might have sent viewers watching the national telecast on ESPN3 to go channel surfing, those that stayed with the game got to see Temple fight back and take a 23-22 lead with 7 minutes, 55 seconds left in the first half on freshman Taylor Robinson’s basket.
But then Stewart started stroking again – she shot 15-for-19 from the field for the night, including 3-of-5 on three-point attempts – and Temple was consigned to finish the way all but Baylor fared in terms of Connecticut opponents to date.
“She’s in that frame of mind right now where every time she touches the ball, every time it leaves her hand, I’m surprised it doesn’t go in,” Hall of Fame coach Geno Auriemma said of his star among stars with the Huskies.
Temple coach Tonya Cardoza, who was on Auriemma’s staff for 14 seasons before coming to Temple in July, 2008, talked about defending Stewart.
“We knew there was no way Tasha (Thames) could guard her by herself,” Cardoza said. “And to hang in there and help out becauseI felt like she was knocking down jump shots, but once she was inside, it was like we were caught on the wrong side and giving her easy buckets.
“We weren’t paying attention to try to help out inside. But she played a great game. She was on fire and she’s probably the best player in the country. At halftime we said there’s no one player that can stop her. We have to do it as a team.
“In the first half, she got way too many easy opportunities. We definitely needed some help and we didn’t get that. Her size and her skill set -- Tasha’s probably six feet – Stewart’s like 6-4 and she’s strong, her skill set, she can shoot, and she’s smart, she knows how to use her body.”
The UConn all-America team also got 18 points from Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, while Bria Hartley scored 16 and dealt 11 assists, Moriah Jefferson dealt 12 assists and center Stefanie Dolson had 11 points and 13 rebounds before leaving during the second half with a slight leg injury that Auriemma deemed nothing to fret about.
“There’s so many players you have to worry about,” Cardoza said. “They just have so many weapons. It’s just hard to guard them and match up with them.”
Rateska Brown was the only Owl in double figures with 13 points though Cardoza is giving much playing time to newcomers Feyonda Fitzgerald and Robinson and they are proving to be key pieces to a better future.
“It’s like a boxing match,” Cardoza said of playing UConn. “We hung in there for about three rounds. Once they punched us right at the end of the half, it was too much to come back from.”
But in terms of that measuring stick, Cardoza saw her team play much better than in the 80-36 loss to the Huskies in Bridgeport earlier this month in a game that was the first in regular season for UConn not played either at Gampel Pavilion on campus in Storrs, or at the larger XL Center in Hartford.
“I think we’ve grown since the last time we played them,” Cardoza said. “I think we competed a little bit better. I felt we competed the first 15 minutes at their place but I felt the way we competed today was a lot better.
“That’s something we can grow from. But again they’re so big and so strong that any and every mistake you make, they take advantage of it and when you’re playing a team like that you have to be almost perfect and we weren’t perfect.
“In the first game, we were fighting but it was like, `Oh, we’re playing UConn.’ I felt today… We weren’t playing the name on the jersey. It was just another team in here. We competed a little longer today. There wasn’t a quit. The last game at the start of the second half, we were demoralized. Today, I felt we had more guys willing to fight to the end.”
Auriemma praised Cardoza’s squad.
“I watch them play a lot, obviously. They’ve had a couple of heartbreakers this year where they had a chance to win at the end and they just may not be ready to do that right now with this group,” Auriemma said.
“But I love what they do. I love the way they play, how hard they compete. Her kids just never got down. We hit them with a really good shot at the beginning of the game. But they regrouped and came right back at us as well as anybody we’ve played this year.
“I’m happy for her. There’s no moral victories. I’m sure she’s not into moral victories but I think she’s done a tremendous job down here.”
A four-game stretch that began here with Saturday’s visit from Rutgers before the Huskies and continues Saturday at SMU and then Tuesday at Houston for Temple could be called the Death and Texas portion of the schedule.
But Temple, picked ninth in the preseason by the conference coaches in the 10-game conference, still has a chance to finish much higher before The American tournament at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., in March.
The game had a family affair to it because of Auriemma’s local roots – he took his team to dinner in his boyhood home of Norristown Monday night -- and Cardoza’s longtime association.
Also, assistant Willnett Crockett is a former UConn star while operations director Stacey Nasser was a manager and Temple’s women’s basketball media relations liason Cathy Bongiovi had a similar job at UConn when the Huskies made their first Women’s Final Four appearance in 1991 after winning the East Regional at The Palestra.
“I’m not going to say he’s like a father figure because he’d be mad at that because he’s not that old,” Cardoza said of Auriemma, who is also serving a second stint with USA Basketball through 2016 after guiding the Americans, including six former Huskies, to the Olympic gold medal in London in 2012. “He’s someone that’s dear to my heart. I would do anything for him.
“I’ve always said there are only a couple of people who could say something bad about him – that’s his wife, CD (associate head coach Chris Dailey), and Jamelle (Elliott, the Cincinnati coach who served with Cardoza and starred at UConn.).
“And anybody else, I’m going to fight to the end for him. He’s someone I trust with everything. He’s the reason why I’m here. And we’ll be best of friends for a lifetime. He’s a mentor. He’s just someone who is really, really special to me.”
It was the first time Auriemma coached a game in McGonigle Hall in Philadelphia but past homecomings have involved games at Villanova in the old Big East wars, in the Palestra in the NCAA tournament and against Saint Joseph’s, and at La Salle besides an NCAA tournament regional next door in the Liacouras Center.
“I’ve never been in this building,” he said. “They sure have cleaned it up and made it real nice. I think it’s a great home court for Tonya. I know they play some games next door.
“This is an historic building. No matter how many changes they make to it, it’s still historic in the big picture, and certainly in the Philadelphia picture. A lot of great players have walked through those halls and into those locker rooms and played on that court.
“I was excited when we came down and played in The Palestra and we never got a chance to play in the old `Cat house at Villanova – it was always in the new place. So this is another one I can check off my list.”
Philadelphia University Handles Holy Family
Measuring against UConn may have paid off for one other local team which played Tuesday night.
Philadelphia University, which played an exhibition game against the Huskies in Hartford in November, losing 93-28, hosted perennial national Division II power Holy Family in a game between the last two unbeaten teams in the Southern Division of the Central Collegiate Athletic Conference.
The host Rams prevailed over the Tigers 83-66 as Najah Jacobs out of Central High topped all scorers with 22 points and also dealt six assists to improve to 12-5 overall and 10-0 in the conference.
The Tigers, who played Maryland in a preseason game and played preseason a year ago at Connecticut in Hartford, fell to 12-6 overall and 10-1 in the CACC.
Phila. U. and Holy Family met once in the Philadelphia/Suburban NCAA Women’s Basketball Summer League in Hatboro, allowable for Division II schools in the NCAA.
Tom Shirley’s Rams are just two short of a team record 12-0 streak set in the CACC in 2005-06.
Samantha Morris had 16 points and nine rebounds in the game while Bria Young had 13 points and Torni Arnao had 12 points and 10 rebounds, her sixth double double.
The Tigers’ Carolyne Heston had 16 points while Reagan Jewell and Sarah Pawlak each scored 10 points.
The Rams on Saturday head to Caldwell, which is the CACC’s Northern Division leaqder.
Louisville Edges Rutgers
In another American Conference game which involved the only other of the 10-team PhilahoopsW group in the Guru’s local coverage of Division I schools, Rutgers came up short against No. 5 Louisville, losing 80-71 at the Scarlet Knights’ Louis A. Brown Athletic Center in P:iscataway, N.J.
Shoni Schimmel scored 24 points for Louisville and Asia Taylor had 19 points while rookie star Tyler Scaife had a career-high 25 for Rutgers .
The Cardinals ( 21-1, 9-0 American Athletic) have won 14 straight and have yet to play UConn in the first of two, which will be on the road Feb. 9 in Storrs at Gampel.
The two teams played for the NCAA title last season after Louisville’s shocker downing tournament favorite Baylor in the Sweet 16. They also met in the 2009 NCAA title game.
Taking note of NFL activities this week an hour to the north, Cardinals coach Jeff Walz said of his team’s schedule, “We’re the Super Bowl game for most teams because they know beating us will help them get in the NCAA tournament.”
It certainly was that way for Rutgers (15-5, 6-3), which is not seeing many ranked teams and the earlier win at home over Georgia has since devalued with the Lady Bulldogs’ plunge out of The Associated Press women’s basketball poll.
“We’re ranked fifth in the country and everyone is trying to beat us,” Schimmel said. “Rutgers has to beat us once and we take that to heart.”
The Scarlet Knights’ last win over a team in the top five was against top-ranked Connecticut on Feb. 5, 2008. Since then Rutgers is 0-20 against the teams residing in the penthouse level of the rankings.
Rutgers’ only other chances against ranked teams in the regular season will be the return games, visiting Louisville Feb. 23 and at Connecticut March 1 in Storrs.
Finishing third, which is possible without regard to the outcome in those two games, would give the Knights a third shot likely against Louisville in The American tournament and an upset would allow a third opportunity most likely to play UConn again.
Rutgers seemed on the way to getting a signature win in the books when it led 48-42 early in the second half before the Cardinals rallied.
“We just didn’t execute when we needed to in the second half,” Hall of Fame Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said. “We had it right there and let it go.”
Rutgers and Louisville are heading out of conference after a one-year stay in The American – a new configuration of a piece of the old Big East with additions. The Scarlet Knights join the Big Ten this summer while the Cardinals will be heading at the same time to the Atlantic Coast Conference, replacing Maryland, which is also heading to the Big Ten.
Three games are on tap Wednesday night with two involving the locals in the Atlantic 10.
The Guru will be tweeting @womhoopsguru from Saint Joseph’s, which will try to climb a step in the standings with some help if the Hawks beat Saint Louis at Hagan Arena.
Richmond visits La Salle, which is tied for third with Saint Joseph’s and several others in the standings.
Villanova heads to Georgetown in the Big East in a game that continues a long-running rivalry from the old Big East configuration.
On Thursday three teams play with the Guru likely to be at Drexel, which will try to maintain second in the Colonial Athletic Association.
In another CAA game, following Sunday’s tough loss at newcomer College of Charleston, two-time defending champion Delaware will host Northeastern at the Bob Carpenter Center in Newark.
Meanwhile, Penn State holding a one-game lead in the Big Ten heads to Purdue, the only team to beat the Lady Lions to date in conference competition.
On Friday, the Guru is likely to be at the Ivy showdown at Princeton, the four-time defending champion that ends its three-week hiatus because of exams to host Harvard, which is picked second behind the Tigers and has the only two wins in league play the last four years that got away from Princeton.
Penn resumes Ivy action hosting Dartmouth.
The four teams flip flop Saturday and the Guru is likely to be at Penn for the Harvard game considering the Quakers are picked third behind the Crimson.
The Guru is still contemplating the Saturday afternoon game. Memphis is at Rutgers at 11:30 a.m. while Creighton is at Villanova and Virginia Commonwealth is at Saint Joseph’s.
As mentioned, Temple is at SMU on the road and La Salle is at Saint Louis.
We’ll hold Sunday till later in the week.
That’s it for now.
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