Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.
By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru
UNCASVILLE, Conn. – The Temple women’s basketball team has seen other squads in the Owls’ athletic department family do wondrous things in the American Athletic Conference since the school year on North Broad Street in Philadelphia got under way last fall.
The footballers gained national attention, won The American East Division and went to a bowl game after falling short of one with a little more prestige in the conference title game.
Fran Dunphy’s men’s hoopsters ended up claiming the top seed in this coming week’s tourney after the women’s is completed on Monday night.
So maybe it was time for Tonya Cardoza’s women’s hoopsters to put their claim on some notoriety in conference competition, especially with a nice prize attached to the effort.
Well, did they ever in Saturday’s afternoon quarterfinals here at the Mohegan Sun Arena where the WNBA Connecticut Sun compete in the summer.
The third-seeded Owls blitzed sixth seeded Tulsa 78-52 to gain their first-ever American tourney triumph in three tries since moving over from the Atlantic 10, where Temple had been in annual title talk since Dawn Staley took control of the program and continued by Cardoza when Staley left for South Carolina following the 2007-08 season.
Title talk is almost prohibitive for all but one in this conference, which happens to have the long-dominating University of Connecticut women, who have won three straight NCAA titles and 10 overall, and have yet to lose a game in this configuration since the break up of the old Big East.
The Huskies showed all their finery in the second game of the day paced by senior all-everything Breanna Stewart with a 92-51 romp over East Carolina (13-19) to up the UConn unbeaten mark for this season to 30-0.
But after second-seeded South Florida brought to reality the moment of a previously declared end to a great playing (Old Dominion) and coaching career of SMU coach Rhonda Rompola 73=69 on the strength of 29 points by the Bulls’ Courtney Williams, Temple stepped into the spotlight.
Up here, the Owls’ sophomore Tonya Atkinson warms to the occasions of returning to her home state where she resides an hour to the south in New Haven. Last year she had a sensational performance in this arena when Temple handled Harvard in the Naismith Hall of Fame tourney.
On Saturday Atkinson had 16 of her 20 points over the first two quarters to give the Owls (20-10) separation from Tulsa and a 36-19 lead at the break.
Tulsa wasn’t ready to go down just yet, however, opening the third stanza with a 6-0 run that earlier in the season might have caused Temple to squandered an opening dominance.
But this time Cardoza’s troops took a quick breathe and fired away adding a barrage of three pointers that had been blank bullets in the Owls’ arsenal until then.
And the day did not feature offense alone in an attack that had four of Atkinson’s teammates also score in double figures as the backcourt tandem of Alliya Butts and Feyonda Fitzgerald each scored 14 points, Donnaizha Fountain had 11, and Erica Coville scored 10.
Defense was also the name of the game and all of them nearly got double doubles off a team dominance of the boards with a 46-30 advantage over Tulsa, whose Ashley Clark was effective with 18 points while Erika Wakefield scored 10.
“When we turn it up on the defensive side and make things difficult, we get to get out in transition, and that’s where we thrive,” Cardoza said. “We just thrive off getting stops and whether it’s a charge or a block, we really feed off of that. And then when we start knocking down shots, it’s just a roller coaster.”
All of it meant that perhaps Temple moved out of bubble talk and near-lock status to end an NCAA drought that has existed since 2011.
“We thought we had done enough before and didn’t get there,” Cardoza referred to 2012 when Temple had been projected into the field by ESPN bracketologist Charlie Crème but were the first out.
Tulsa coach Matilda Mossman was impressed by the way the Owls handled her group for the second time this season, the other being at Temple’s McGonigle Hall.
“Temple was really good,” she said. “It’s hard to play a team when all five starters are in double figures. I think Temple is really a good team. They’re deserving of being in the NCAA tournament.
“At the same time I’m really proud of our team. We just couldn’t make enough shots. Temple, at one time in the second half was shooting 72 percent. They finally cooled off at the end. We just couldn’t get them out of a rhythm. It didn’t matter of we played man or zone or just switched.”
Temple and South Florida, the second seed, split during the season with each winning on its own court. They play at 6:30 p.m. Sunday on ESPNU-TV after Connecticut tips at 4:30 p.m. with Tulane.
In the opener, Tulane edged Memphis 70-64 as Kolby Morgan scored 23 points and Tierra Jones scored 10 to improve to 21-10. Memphis (18-12) failed despite four starters scoring in double figures with Ariel Hearn scoring 17 points, and Mooriah Rowser, Loysha Morris and Brianna Wright scored 10 each and Wright also made a double double with 11 rebounds.
“Holding (Memphis) to 25-percent (shooting) was really a challenge to our kids,” said Tulane coach Lisa Stockton, whose prize was having to deal with UConn in the semifinals and the decided home-crowd advantage that numbered over 7,000 for Saturday’s games.
UConn got 15 points from Breanna Stewart, destined to be the top pick in next month’s WNBA draft right here at Mohegan, while Morgan Tuck and freshman Katie Lou Samuelson each scored 16, and Kia Nurse scored 13, and Gabby Williams came off the bench to score 14 and grab nine rebounds against the Pirates (13-19).
“When we have Stewie, Moriah (Jefferson) and Tuck are playing at the level they are playing right now, it’s really fun to watch,” said Hall of Fame UConn coach Geno Auriemma. “I thought today we were able to mix it up a bit in the first half. We spread it around a lot and a lot of people touched the ball and a lot of people got in the scoring act. That’s when we are at our best.”
Elsewhere, Penn and Princeton were at their best on their senior nights with the Quakers routing Harvard at the Palestra while the Tigers did likewise at Jadwin Gym.
The result for the second time in three years results in a winner take-all showdown at Princeton Tuesday afternoon at 5:30 p.m. as the two teams meet tied for first for the second time any Ivy member is in that position in league history.
In 2014 Penn upset Princeton for the first title under Mike McLaughlin, while a year ago the Tigers went unbeaten into the second round of the NCAA tourney picking up Ivy crown number five in six seasons while the Quakers landed second.
Penn upset Princeton in the Ivy opener in January in a narrow outcome but tripped up at Cornell last weekend to fall back to a tie.
Outside observers believe either team is good enough to go as an at-large but the NCAA committee traditionally has frowned on that notion no matter how good multiple teams in the Ivy are.
Villanova, the second seed, meets Creighton Sunday at top-seeded DePaul in Chicago in the quarterfinals of the Big East tourney.
A win Sunday could be good enough to land in the NCAA no matter what else happens since the Wildcats have been projected into the field, but also are considered a bubble since start senior Caroline Coyer, likely a repeat Big Five player of the year, went down recently with a knee injury.
However, freshman Adrianna Hahn, out of Ursuline Academy, which once was the home to Elena Delle Donne, has stepped up after replacing Coyer as a starter and led Villanova to three straight wins.
Nationally, Mike Siroky in the post under this chronicles the Southeastern Conference tourney where Dawn Staley’s South Carolina squad, ranked third, meets Mississippi State, which dispatched Tennessee Saturday.
Notre Dame will be going for its third straight ACC crown since joining the conference as the Irish play Syracuse. The Orange are in a conference tourney final for the first time in 28 years.
Out West in Seattle, UCLA and Oregon State will play for the automatic bid out of the Pac-12 after the Bruins survived in a narrow overtime win against upstart California, while the Beavers edged Washington.