The Towson women’s basketball team has got the fever.
Despite a 49-point setback to perennial powerhouse Connecticut in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Friday night, the Tigers got a taste of the bright lights and big stage of the postseason and are eager to get back again.
“At the end of the day, we’re still conference champions, and we know what it takes to get there,” redshirt junior point guard Q. Murray said Saturday while sitting on a bus transporting the team back home from Storrs, Conn. “Now that we’ve experienced that first round of the NCAA tournament, it’s definitely motivation to get there again and when we do get there again, to advance to the next round.”
Said coach Diane Richardson: “We’ve gotten the bug, and we’re going to keep pushing and keep pushing and set even loftier goals.”
Towson’s playoff run as a No. 15 seed came to a swift end as it ran into the buzzsaw that is the Huskies (32-2). The 11-time national champions, a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, raced to a 31-7 advantage by the end of the first quarter and led 64-24 at halftime en route to the 110-61 victory.
Richardson said she thought nerves played a role in the Tigers’ slow start, and Murray (Milford Mill) said the players missed several high-percentage shots.
“We just couldn’t get the shots that we normally make in that first half,” said Murray, whose five assists gave her 147, setting a program record for assists in a season. “They weren’t falling for us, but all in all, I think we did a great job battling and not giving up and playing with heart.”
“We just couldn’t contain them, and it got away from us quick,” redshirt sophomore shooting guard Kionna Jeter added.
Despite the loss, the Tigers can take solace in forging arguably the best season in program history. They captured their first Colonial Athletic Association tournament championship, which gave them their first NCAA postseason appearance. At 20-13, the team enjoyed its first 20-win season since 2007-08 and its first winning record in 10 years.
Both Jeter and Murray said Towson being picked to finish eighth in the CAA preseason poll spurred the players.
“I’m very proud, and I think we’re all very proud,” Murray said. “When we saw that [poll] in the beginning of the season, we took that as motivation because we knew what we were capable of, and we knew that with the talent that we had, we just had to put it all together. We did what everybody said we couldn’t do.”
Richardson said she did not dwell on the preseason poll, but took note that it seemed to set the foundation for the team’s mindset.
“These kids are fighters and never looked at it like, ‘We could lose,’ ” she said. “They always looked at like, ‘We could win,’ which was very helpful for us. In the beginning, we talked about winning a CAA championship this year. The reward of that is going to the NCAA tournament, and I think they performed well this year. Even though we had some ups and downs, they kept their eyes on the prize, which is half the battle as a coach.”
The Tigers figure to be voted much higher in next year’s CAA preseason poll. They return four of five starters, six of their top seven scorers, five of their top six rebounders, their top four steals leaders and their top three assists leaders.
The graduation of 6-foot-4 redshirt senior center Maia Lee (6.7 rebounds per game, 3.8 points per game and 35 blocks) could be offset by 6-5 freshman Janeen Camp (6.0 ppg, 4.9 rpg and 52 blocks). And the void created by the loss of senior guard Danielle Durjan (6.1 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 39 assists and 25 steals) off the bench could be filled by sophomore Jalynn Holmes (3.9 ppg, 1.3 rpg, 14 assists and 15 steals).
“I think it shows that we’ve got some great experience coming back,” Richardson said of the players expected to return. “That’s what we wanted this year, and that’s how we set up our schedule, to get them primed and ready. I think we’ll be good next year with all of those kids returning.”
Murray said the players are aware they will be getting opponents’ best next season.
“I think it will be even tougher because this past season, I guess you could say that the pressure wasn’t really on us,” she said. “We were the underdogs. But now since we are going to be the one with the target on our backs, we’ve got to be even sharper. We can’t come out with low energy. We have to be on our p’s and q’s the whole time because teams are going to be coming for us.”
Jeter said she intends to watch the rest of the NCAA tournament as she is a self-described “basketball fanatic.” She said aside from failing to advance to the second round, she has no regrets about Friday’s loss.
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“Yesterday was an amazing feeling,” she said. “Win or lose, we felt great about ourselves after the game. It gives us motivation that we can definitely go back next year.”