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For Towson women's basketball coach Diane Richardson, the road to the Tigers' first Colonial Athletic Association championship and NCAA Tournament berth was paved just before Christmas.
Towson lost, 90-43, at West Virginia Dec. 20 and played at Marshall on the same road trip two days later. The Tigers were 5-5 after the loss to the Mountaineers, and they had to get straightened out fast: conference play was set to start Jan. 4.
Towson headed into the locker room down, 39-27, to the Thundering Herd Dec. 22. But that's when the team came together, according to Richardson.
"We were down 12 at the half, and I kind of talked about what we're about and show them what we're about and stepping up to the plate and they came back," Richardson said on
Glenn Clark Radio March 18. "We ended up winning that game on the road. I knew then that this team was going to battle for each other and battle for everything that we had for the rest of the season. They showed me that. They showed me they had that fight and that grit, because they turned that game totally around."
Towson went 15-7 after its blowout loss to West Virginia and is now 20-12 overall, the Tigers' first winning record since the 2008-09 season. Towson will face No. 2 seed Connecticut in the first round of the NCAA Tournament March 22.
Richardson is in her second season as Towson's head coach; previously, she was as an assistant at West Virginia, George Washington, Maryland and American and had two stints as the head coach at Riverdale Baptist High School (Md.). Towson went 9-21 overall and 4-14 in the CAA during Richardson's first year as the head coach, and the Tigers lost 10 of their last 11 games.
But some positives emerged, like the development of wing Nukiya Mayo, who developed into a scorer (12.9 points per game) and rebounder (9.1). Guard Danielle Durjan (8.0 points) was solid contributor after transferring in from Harford Community College. Richardson brought in more transfers ahead of the 2018-19 season like guards Kionna Jeter, Qierra Murray and Ryan Holder.
"I definitely had the confidence, and I was confident in our young ladies," Richardson said. "We started out the season talking about winning the CAA championship. I knew that it was possible with us if our team understood it and were coachable and bought into it, and they did. So I knew that we could definitely win the championship this year and that was on our mind this year that we could do that."
Jeter, a redshirt sophomore out of Spartanburg, S.C., signed with Towson last June after playing for Gulf Coast State College. Jeter has started all 32 games and is averaging team highs in points (17.3) and steals (2.56). She scored 30 points in the Tigers' conference quarterfinal win against Delaware, then scored nine points in the semifinal against Hofstra and 10 in the final against Drexel.
And it was Jeter's jumper with 25 seconds left against Drexel that pushed Towson's late one-point lead to three, a lead the Tigers did not surrender.
"She is a phenomenal player. She can score on three different levels, get to the rim, the pull-up, the three and she's got such a basketball IQ," Richardson said. "But the other thing about her is she's so unselfish that sometimes we have to tell her to shoot the ball. But she understands the game so well.
"We had her on [Drexel's] best player, and so she knew that I had to stop that player. Nukiya Mayo stepped up. She knew that, 'OK, I've got to make sure that she doesn't score.' But when the time came and we needed her to score, she did that – especially that late jumper."
Next up for Towson is UConn, which has won 11 national championships and four in a row from 2013-2016. The Huskies (31-2 overall) last lost a game against Louisville Jan. 31. UConn is led by forward Napheesa Collier (20.9 points per game) and guards Katie Lou Samuelson (18.9) and Crystal Dangerfield (13.7).
Even though they're facing long odds, the Tigers will be ready.
"They are still up and excited about the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament, and you can't tell them they're not going to go there and win," Richardson said. "I'm feeling good about that, knowing that they're in the right frame of mind. My coaching staff and I, we're going to get together and we're going to put together a game plan to win."
For more from Richardson, listen to the full interview here: