Guru's View: Temple and Penn WBB Suffer Agony of Defeats Just Short of Thrill of NCAA Victories
DURHAM, N.C. – In 1990 when Virginia reached the Women’s Final Four in Knoxville the first time, courtesy of an overtime upset of Tennessee depriving the Lady Vols of personally hosting the event, the Cavaliers got quickly bounced by eventual winner Stanford in the semifinals.
That squad had a giddy and talented sophomore point guard in Dawn Staley and a junior forward in Tonya Cardoza, later in life to become successive coaches at Temple in Philadelphia.
But the 1990 setback was OK.
Coach Debbie Ryan’s squad was young and, basically, having already pulled the upset of the tournament, the Cavaliers were just glad to be there, enjoy the experience knowing they were talented enough to return and do better next time.
Twelve months later, “next time” arrived and though Virginia had to do a detour route in another regional to get to New Orleans because of a loss down the stretch, the Cavaliers arrived salivating for the trophy and knocked off a new and up and coming team named Connecticut in the semifinals.
In the title game, however, while within minutes of claiming the championship, the team started missing foul shots allowing Tennessee to get closer and then a call by an official who years later admitted it was the wrong assessment doomed Virginia to lose to the Lady Vols in overtime.
That was Cardoza’s last shot but most of the team was still intact for 1992 so hours later the contingent could be seen intermingling with the tourist crowd on Bourbon Street because it definitively existed for Staley and company that the third time was going to be the charm.
Now it’s a year later in 1992 and having to play a game in Los Angeles that started at 9 in the morning due to TV concerns by CBS with the men and women playing the same day, Virginia was chugging along in the semifinals over Stanford until again as the year before, the foul shots stopped connecting and the game slipped into overtime and the Cavaliers in the final minute went by the boards.
The final opportunity was over and the pain of defeat was now too much to bear and the Virginia group disappeared for the rest of the weekend to console themselves and lick their wounds together knowing the championship quest for that bonded group and by extension players like Cardoza, who had been part of the original rise to the elite level, had died within a few inches of what should have been grasped.
That brings us to 2017 where the biggest disappointment will be if the Connecticut women fall short of a fifth straight title, though the team that achieves the upset or however it gets done will certainly be celebrated for doing the near impossible to date.
Huskies Hall of Fame coach Geno Auriemma already laid some terms, however, during the ongoing HBO special series on UConn where defeat might be acceptable.
Moving forward in this narrative, appearances in either NCAA tournament men or women are many things to the 64 teams in the intra-competition among the two genders.
Going into last Monday night prior to the Women’s Selection Show on ESPN, the squads of Ivy champion Penn and American regular season runner up Temple, the two signature Division I women’s contingents in the Philadelphia area this season, knew they were NCAA-bound and so they could fantasize among themselves beforehand how far they might go.
Then the bracket was released and each learned they were in the Bridgeport Regional of doom headed by UConn.
But the good news was the task of being dragon slayers couldn’t be assumed until the Sweet 16 at the earliest.
So for each, a modest approach could be taken, enjoy the moment and compete, go after that first round win and get to round two, which may not be daunting in landing in the Sweet 16 alongside of UConn.
For Temple, a seventh seed, the Owls were sent here to second-seeded Duke’s site but against 10th seeded Oregon in a level playing field matchup with each having their own special strengths – the Ducks of the Pac-12 with tall super talented freshmen enjoying a rebuild under third-year coach Kelly Graves while the Owls under Cardoza are known for their flashy lightning quick guard attack.
For Penn, the Quakers drew a 12 seed in Los Angeles hosted by four-seed UCLA but initially matched with a five-seed Texas A&M squad that had been a work in progress in the Southeastern Conference under veteran Gary Blair.
Following a bumpy two months in the front end of the schedule, by the arrival of January, Penn coach Mike McLaughlin had tinkered to make the Quakers ready to defend their league crown and go the extra two steps in the brand new Ivy tournament.
It’s possible many thought Penn was capable of being a surprise story on the front end of this weekend’s set of games that were being played at 16 different sites.
And so on Saturday night rthe Owls and Quakers, respectfully, took the floor in the fabled arenas of Cameron Indoor Stadium here and out west Pauley Pavilion on separate coasts confident and hopeful of producing a great start to their weekend travels.
Little did either realize in retrospect that if one believes in good and bad karma, then the ouster of the defending NCAA champion Villanova men’s team, the overall No. 1 seed, in the second round by Wisconsin, putting the finish on a 12-month Cinderella story, had set an ominous cloud over Big Five basketball prior to the local women’s games.
The Temple women tipped almost three hours ahead down here before Penn was due to take the floor in Los Angeles. For the Owls seniors, headed by all-timer Feyonda Fitzgerald, this was it, win and get to play another day.
That was the mantra the Guru remembers existing when he was manager of the Temple men, which had a very large group of seniors, as the Owls spent a magical week in New York concluding with the NIT trophy in Madison Square Garden after rallying over the Bob Cousy-coached Boston College squad.
Now to play with a juxtaposition of time for thid narrative, let’s pretend both games were being played at the same moment.
Temple’s battle was tenacious and steady and the Owls, in their first NCAA postseason battle since 2011, hung tough in a contest with nine ties and 13 lead changes.
But early in the fourth period, the Owls bolted to a six-point lead and maybe the fates were about to shine in both places while out west Penn’s senior Sydney Stipanovich, a Quaker all-timer, was leading her team to an unheard of 21-point lead early in the fourth quarter.
McLaughlin’s team was minutes away from becoming the third Ivy school to win an NCAA opener.
Coupled with the fact that Sunday afternoon Drexel was about to host Villanova in a second-round WNIT contest, ensuring a local advancing to the third round, this weekend was set to be stamped one of the greatest in Philly women’s basketball.
And then for each, it all turned.
Temple couldn’t stop the bigs, only counter on offense with the Owls’ own strengths, and the Guru started seeing mental videos of those buzzer-beater losses suffered in the early years of the Dawn Staley-coached era that preceded Cardoza.
Out West, Penn’s offense went cold and Texas A&M rallied in such a way that as the Guru watched on his iPad after filing his Temple story for The Inquirer, his mind started seeing a repeat of the dreadful loss to La Salle, giving up seven points at the finish in regulation and then again in overtime for a loss in The Palestra early in the season.
For those old enough to live through the 10-game nightmare Phillies losing streak of 1964 that cost the baseball team the National League pennant, it was that bad.
With Temple, the hope was that maybe the Owls could prevail at the finish. With Penn, just someone, anyone, make a shot.
The pressure of A&M was becoming a bit much. The large lead was slipping like sand in an hour glass that had a tiny hole on the bottom.
In the Temple game with about five seconds to go, Oregon freshman Mallory McGwire found sister classmate Ruthy Hebard inside for two points and a one-point 71-70 lead.
But there was time for Fitzgerald to race to Temple’s basket, win the game, and then get ready for a Monday date with Duke.
Off she went.
One was already envisioning the layup to put the Owls ahead. Fitzgerald’s hand with the ball went up, the shot left her hand, and – whack – Hebard had quickly got back after she scored and destroyed the Temple senior’s looming moment.
“It was the perfect scenario – open court where we’re really good with Feyonda with the basketball in her hands,” Cardoza afterwards described the final moments. “I saw her paying attention to the clock, so I knew she was alert and that she knew she had more time to get to the other basket. The guy just came over and made a great play on it.”
And out West, a few hours later in real time as we remove the side by side aspect, just enough was left out of Penn’s missed shots, turnovers, and perhaps victims of a couple of controversial officiating calls that did not help, that instead of celebrating the triumph of an Ivy school the storyline went to the Aggies, setting a record with a 25-1 run and 21-point comeback.
"We needed one basket," said McLaughlin of the 63-61 loss. "They sped us up and we lost our organization. We didn't handle it very well. It's my responsibility to keep our kids composed and find a way to get one basket.
"It's just really, really difficult for me right now," he added.
Cardoza, drawing back on those Virginia days of her youth, answered a question about the sting of defeat, especially when it closes the careers of talented collegiate seniors.
“Foe me, it might be a bit easier,” Cardoza said. “I’ve been in the position where I’ve played for a championship and came up short, and always live with that moment.
“So for them, it’s going to be hard, especially the seniors in their last go-round. That’s something they’re going to have to live with for the rest of their life what they could have done differently,” she continued.
“For me, it will take a little bit, but for them it will take a bit longer, especially Feyonda as she was the guy with the ball in her hands. Hopefully, there will be a lot of positive things that happen in her basketball career.
"For the seniors, this is going to be something that they live with as this was their only opportunity and to have it cut short in this type of game. For me, I couldn’t tell you. As a coach, I haven’t been in this situation. Hopefully, there’s many more where we’re in the NCAA tournament,” Cardoza said.
“When you lose like that, there’s not a lot you can say. You can tell them what a great season it was, but they don’t want to hear that, it’s just disappointment. They’re upset.
“If we lose by 10 they’re crying because it’s over, but it was the way we lost that really hurts them. It’s not only that we missed the shot, but also because of the stops that we didn’t get the last three possessions,” Cardoza explained.
“Every single person had something to do with something, and so it wasn’t just about the shot we didn’t make but the stops we didn’t get as well.”
Alliya Butts, Fitzgerald’s backcourt mate, echoed Cardoza’s description of the pain caused by the loss.
“This one hurts because we were in the game,” she said. “It was a close game and we all fought hard and to come out and lose like that it hurts. It was a close one.”