Guru's American Tourney Report: Fitzgerald's Record Sends Temple Into Semifinals
UNCASVILLE, Conn. – UConn and its ongoing NCAA record win streak may be the top story here where the rock stars of women’s basketball are in phase two of the March Madness attraction-turned-reality show being delivered in doses by HBO.
Phase one was going unbeaten during the regular season, which no one expected, and winning the league, which most thought possible.
Now it’s on to the conference semifinals and finals and then the next phases are the rounds of the NCAA tournament leading to the championship out of Dallas this season.
But Temple did a little show stealing of its own Saturday night as the Owls’ Feyonda Fitzgerald set an American Athletic Conference tournament record scoring 30 points to lead coach Tonya Cardoza’s squad to a 67-58 win over 10th-seeded Houston (12-19) in a quarterfinal game at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
Following a split when third-seeded South Florida was ranked, losing close in Philadelphia at home, then winning in the Sunshine State, the Owls will meet the Bulls (23-7) in a semifinal game at 7:30 Sunday night on ESPNU after the Huskies (30-0) meet fourth-seeded Central Florida (20-10) at 5 p.m. In the other semifinal broadcast on ESPN2.
It's the 12th straight season the Huskies have won 30 or more games.
UConn advanced with a 105-57 win over ninth-seeded Tulsa (10-21) while South Florida in a closely fought contest beat sixth-seeded SMU 62-55 down the stretch.
In the other game in the quarterfinals, fourth-seeded UCF topped fifth-seeded Tulane 61-57 to drop the Green Wave to 16-14.
Tulane made a stir several weeks ago at home in New Orleans when the team had a threatening upset of UConn go into the final minute before the Huskies prevailed.
Saturday’s UConn win extended the NCAA-consecutive record win streak to 105.
This is one time the Owls (24-6) can live off the Huskies’ bandwagon to turn attention in their direction.
Ranked in both polls (No. 25 in the Associated Press media), Temple is more than just a bunch of locals up here for a bus woman’s holiday playing second fiddle.
Coach Tonya Cardoza spent 14 years as an assistant on Geno Auriemma’s staff at UConn before succeeding the fabled Dawn Staley at Temple and with the large media contingent here in the state of Connecticut, she is a familiar face to most of the contingent.
Prior to Friday’s action in the first round, Cardoza and Auriemma were named co-coaches of the year from a vote of their peers.
Furthermore, Tanaya Atkinson, who has gone from starter to important bench player, is from nearby New Haven here. The league coaches tabbed her with the sixth woman award.
More important than in appearances in the first three conference tourneys here since it organized out of the breakup of the old Big East, Temple can talk securely of being one of the teams in the 64-field NCAA tournament, whose bracket will be announced on ESPN a week from Monday.
The Owls’ RPI is a program-record 18 at the NCAA’s site through Saturday’s game.
“I think, pretty much, this might solidify us in the NCAA’s but now we are just just trying to win games to position ourselves for a better seed and right now we are excited about this because this is only our second conference tournament win,” Cardoza said after the Owls beat the Cougars to go to 8-0 against them lifetime.
“But credit my players. Things weren’t going really well for us in the first half but we found a way to win the basketball game.”
Atkinson was back in the starting lineup due to the leg injury to Donnaizha Fountain, which has her listed day-to-day, and she 16 points and 12 rebounds.
Alliyah Butts had four 3-pointers, shot 7-for-14 overall from the field and scored 19 points, while Ruth Sherrill grabbed 15 rebounds and Saifya Martin grabbed seven.
Fitzgerald also dealt seven assists.
The Owls’ big stat was second chance points, outscoring Houston 18-6.
Jacqueline Blake and Angela Harris each scored 15 points for Houston while Serithia Hawkins scored 10.
Houston coach Ron Hughley has watched the growth of Cardoza’s team as a former aide to Rutgers’ C. Vivian Stringer playing in Temple nonconference games and then running his own operation out of Texas.
“Even under Dawn Staley it has always been about guard play … and Tonya hasn’t changed any of that,” Hughley said. “That’s always been a staple of who Temple is. They have always been a class act, all the kids are very high character, always play hard and always been an example of what city basketball is all about.
“I can’t say enough about them. They will represent the American Conference very well in the NCAAs.”
Hughley praised Sherrill’s performance.
“She is the greatest example of knowing her role. She’s on the team with a lot of scorers and the thing that she has to do is defend and rebound and she does it with the best of them,” the Houston coach said.
“That was the thing we needed to take care of. She did an outstanding job and we didn’t do a great job of boxing her out, when also gave them second chance points opportunities. We only had one (opportunity) and that’s a big part of the game, you have to rebound the basketball.”
Fitzgerald said she was unaware of her record, previously set at 29 a year ago by former USF star Courtney Williams.
“I was just playing basketball doing what I had to do to help my team,” Fitzgerald said.
“At the beginning, I was a little cold, my shots weren’t falling so I was trying to find another way to help my team out. Whether it was finding an open teammate or getting to the basket and suddenly my shot started falling so I just kept shooting the ball. I kept doing what I had to do to help my team win the game.”
In the USF game, for a while in the second half, it seemed that SMU (17-14) had found energy to sustain and led the Bulls 45-39 with 8:49 left in regulation.
But USF kept inching closer and then a hail Mary long shot went up and banked into the basket from Laia Flores of the Bulls for a 3-pointer and a five-point lead with 1:18 left.
McKenzie Adams got two points back for SMU but then USF kept the ball alive on the offensive end of missed shots before Flores’ two foul shots made it a five-point lead with 14 seconds left.
SMU missed twice on its next possession and then Kitija Laksa hit two free throws for the game’s final score.
Laksa finished with 17 points, Flores, off 6-for-8 from the line, had 15, and Maria Jespersen scored 14.
Adams had a game-high 26 for SMU while Kiara Perry scored 12.
“The last two minutes of the game we were able to make a couple of shots, make a couple plays and unfortunately we didn’t make the plays we should have made but what a good game,” said Travis Mays, the Mustangs’ first-year coach who was an assistant at Texas.
As for how things evolved a little earlier, Mays said, “You saw with three to four minutes left in the game was our will and our want to win. We absolutely wanted to win the game but throughout the process there’s a learning curve you have to understand what it takes in order to come out on the side of victory. We learned something tonight. We have to be the ones on the other end making plays as opposed to allowing our opponents to make those plays.”
As for the wild three-pointer, Mays said, “That was a back-breaker. It was one where we thought we were in solid defensive position, we thought she threw up a prayer, she didn’t call bank, at least I didn’t hear it.
“When it went in, I could see the energy go out of our players. Oh no! How did she make that one? At that point you have to try and get the energy back up and try to make a cople of good plays.
“We designed a special situation play but unfortunately they got their hands on the ball and a partial block.”
As for the third meeting with Temple, Bulls coach Jose Fernandez said, “I think it is going to be a physical game on both ends of the floor. It is two really good basketball teams.
“We are going to have to defend and we are going to have to limit them to one shot every possession. For us we have to make sure we run offense and make then guard us throughout the entire clock and make the most out of every possession.
“It should be a really good game.”
In the UConn win over Tulsa, Napheesa Collier had 24 points for the Huskies shooting 7-for-9 from the floor, while Katie Lou Samuelson, who shared conference player of the year honors with Collier, had 19 points, Gabby Williams scored 17, Saniya Chong had 10, while Crystal Dangerfield off the bench scored 11 and Natalie Butler had 13.
Erika Wakefield, with 15 points, was the only Tulsa player to score in double figures.
“Once we got started, I thought we did a great job handling the ball,” Auriemma said referring to getting a little rusty off a break between the end of the grind and wait for the conference tournament.
“It’s two games in a row now where we had four turnovers and five turnovers which for our team to be able to get a great shot every time down the floor is a big, big key for us.”
In the other game of the day, Kolby Morgan got 25 points for Tulane, which didn’t have anyone else on double figures.
UCF was able to counter with balance, Zykira Lewis scored 17 points, Aliyah Gregory and Tolulope Omokore each scored 11, and Kornelia Wright scored 10.
Auriemma was asked about the night someone might beat his team.
“I just hope when that day comes and we are on the wrong end of a score it’s because somebody beat us, somebody played a great, great game. They just made shots, they played great defensively, they played really smart.
“I just don’t want it to ever be that we just walked into a game and we lost because we didn’t do what we were capable of doing. That’s something you can control.
“Somebody will figure out a way to beat us. I just hope they beat us and that when that time comes we don’t lose.”