With three of its first four American Athletic Conference games against beatable teams and two of the games at home, Tulane's women's basketball team had a realistic hope of getting off to a good start in conference.
However, the Green Wave (9-8, 1-3) is looking to turn things around when it plays at Central Florida (11-7, 3-2) on Wednesday night. Tulane is in the middle of a stretch in which it plays four of five games at home. The Wave, though, is coming off two home losses.
“We've been in a position to win, and we've made mistakes here and there that have cost us games,” Coach Lisa Stockton said. “We've haven't been out of them.”
The Knights beat the Wave twice last season, by five points at Fogelman Arena and by four in Orlando. Getting a victory there again is expected to be difficult.
“This is a tough matchup for us just because they are really physical, and we've got to be ready to (meet) that,” Stockton said. “It's hard to simulate that in practice. They are probably the most physical team we'll play this season.”
The Knights do bring intensity. Mainly using a 1-2-2 press, they are second in the AAC in steals (10.4 per game) and first in turnover margin. Central Florida uses turnover baskets to offset its difficulties scoring in the set offense.
In its past two games, Tulane had 23 turnovers against Houston and 20 against Wichita State, 16 of which were steals.
“We have to be ready for (Central Florida's) aggression, their traps,” Tulane point guard Kayla Manuirirangi said. “We have to spread the floor, communicate and pass the ball instead of a lof of dribbling. But I think with the press breaks we have, if we use them right, it won't be a problem.”
UCF's aggressive defense is headed by its four-guard lineup that includes Aliyah Gregory, a 5-foot-10 senior who was first-team All-AAC last season, and Zakiya Saunders, a 5-9 senior who transferred from Albany. The others are Korneila Wright, a 5-7 sophomore, and Nyala Shuler, a 6-foot junior who leads the Knights in rebounding at 7.3 per game. Saunders leads the team in scoring at 13.2 per game and Gregory is next at 12.0.
Turnovers are a big reason Tulane is ninth in the 12-team conference in defense through four games, with opponents having shot 44.0 percent. The Wave also is last in 3-point defense, allowing 38.7 percent shooting.
Stockton noted that the Wave has faced the conference's top two offensive teams — South Florida and Houston. Manuirirangi said Tulane is not a bad defensive team.
“We just need to stay after it,” she said. “I think overall, we've done well on defense. We need to communicate more and know the (scouting report). We have to play a shooter how a shooter should be played.”
Stockton remembers UCF's rebounding being the difference in last year's two games. This season, however, Tulane is sixth in rebounding, with a plus-2.2 margin. Central Florida is eighth at minus-5.0 per game.
Stockton said their style of play remains the same.
“My three biggest concerns are their physicality, rebounding — especially offensive rebounding — and taking care of the ball,” she said. “We can't turn the ball over and let them get fast breaks.”