Opinion: Looking back on the 2020-21 season for women’s basketball

A look back into the 2020-21 season for FAU women’s basketball.

Photo+by+Eston+Parker+III.

Photo by Eston Parker III.

John DeStefano, Contributing Writer

The FAU women’s basketball season came to a halt in the quarterfinals of the Conference USA tournament in a 74-67 loss against the University of Texas El Paso (UTEP) Miners on March 11, bringing with it the Owls’ hopes for their second-ever conference title. 

Though it was a frustrating loss for the Red and Blue, the promise shown by this Owls squad should give FAU supporters every reason to be excited about their team’s chances for next year. Let’s take a look back at a season that featured one of the most remarkable turnarounds in program history.

 

Growing Pains

A primary concern for Jim Jabir entering his fourth year as head coach was the durability and fitness of his team’s defense. The Owls started their season on a high by dropping 93 points to put away the University of North Florida in their opening game at the Burrow.

Sophomore forward Allie Tylka led the way with 19 points that evening while a relatively unknown graduate transfer guard named Jacaira “Iggy” Allen appeared on the scoresheet for the first time, putting up 18 points of her own. 

She would not stay in obscurity for long as her next 21 games took FAU women’s basketball on a ride, the likes of which had not been seen since their arrival in C-USA before the 2013-14 season. 

The journey, however, did not begin smoothly.

A pair of in-state losses at the University of Miami and the University of Florida – in which the Owls were handily outscored in each – followed the opener, tempering expectations for a young team that boasted only one true senior, international forward Astou Gaye. Injuries to her and frontcourt mate Janeta Rozentale compounded FAU’s defensive woes as the Owls struggled to get stops down the stretch early in the year. 

Others too were bitten by the injury bug like sophomore guard Nikola Ozola, who rolled her ankle in practice a week before the season started, sidelining her for the first three games. Redshirt junior guard Rita Pleskevich also missed the first three contests due to eligibility. Frequently during the season, FAU was forced to enter games with less than ten players available, even playing one contest late in the year with only seven.

The sudden departure of last year’s freshman wunderkind Lotta Vehka-Aho, who suffered an undisclosed ailment and unenrolled from school following the loss at UF, further complicated the situation for the Owls. 

They went on to lose five of their next seven as conference play began, including series sweeps by Middle Tennessee and Old Dominion.

Even for the most passionate FAU fans, things were beginning to look bleak.

 

Always Darkest Before Dawn

Despite the defeats, Allen had already burst onto the scene as a star. She led the Owls in four straight games with a 21.6 scoring average until Pleskevich broke out with 18 points in a loss to Middle Tennessee on Jan. 2. 

Though the Owls finally managed to escape with a win over local rival FIU and split the series against the Golden Panthers, few if any around the conference liked their chances to make some noise in the second half of the season. 

On Jan. 16, FAU’s conference record stood at 1-5 and it seemed like the season would soon get away from them.

However, a twist of fate, in the form of two postponed series due to COVID-19 complications in two successive weeks, gave FAU 20 straight days off and afforded the Owls a chance to fully rest and recuperate from their injuries.

Though FAU lost its next game at heavily favored Western Kentucky 71-64, it ended up being a lesson in the importance of team basketball. Allen was in midseason form, dropping 35 points and grabbing 13 boards in the first of seven more consecutive games in which she led the Owls in scoring. 

Remarkably, it was the offensive unit on the whole that looked very different from the one that had gone into the break. Passing was crisper. Set plays were neater. FAU’s strengths in the frontcourt were fully evident as junior Amber Gaston swatted four attempts to add to the team’s tally of nine on the night. 

The shots may not have fallen for the Owls that evening, but the proof of concept was there. They had stared down one of the best teams in the conference on their home court and didn’t flinch. There was a sense among those close to the team of nearing a turning point. 

It came the very next day.

 

Righting the Ship

Every basketball season is full of moments of truth, individual segments of effort that one can look towards that provide context for the events that follow. One such moment occurred for FAU in the series wrap-up against WKU on Feb. 6, which turned out to be a watershed moment for the entire season.

After a tightly contested first half that saw FAU take a 12-point lead into the break, Western Kentucky had ridden an 18-8 run to fight their way back within two. With seemingly all the momentum in their favor, the Hilltoppers looked poised to complete their escape and finish the series sweep.

But FAU found heroics from an unlikely source. The Owls came right down court and worked in a layup from redshirt junior forward Sofia Galeron. Her splashdown on a three-pointer on the ensuing FAU possession, assisted on a great find by Allen, gave her five points in just 21 seconds, stunning the Hilltoppers and giving the Owls a six-point lead they would not relinquish.

Galeron finished the night with a season-high 16 points on 4-10 shooting from three and was the difference-maker, establishing herself as one of the premier deep threats in the FAU offense. She went on to raise her scoring average in nearly every game she played for the rest of the season, including putting up double-digits in four out of her next five appearances.

Allen was awarded C-USA Player of the Week after slashing 27 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 2.5 APG, 2.5 SPG, and 1.5 BPG at WKU, a recognition that seemed long overdue. Now that team success had shone the spotlight on her, she had become impossible to ignore.

Following the victory, it was time to take stock. There were still plenty of matches left, and plenty of time to make a run. The next seven games will go down as the stuff of legend in the annals of FAU women’s basketball.

First, they ripped off three more wins in a row behind brilliant performances from Allen, who by now was scoring over 22 PPG, including a sweep of the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) and a shocking upset over UTEP in El Paso, where she went for 28 points and 17 rebounds. 

A 92-62 blowout loss to the Miners the following day could be chalked up to an off-night shooting and an overwhelmingly good performance by the home squad. But the damage had already been done and after four straight wins, the Owls had defiantly made their assertion: ‘We’re not going to be pushed around anymore.’

Two more wins in a home sweep of Southern Miss would follow, putting the Owls squarely on the .500 mark at 7-7 in C-USA and 9-9 overall. Gaston again topped the score sheet in the second contest, putting up a ridiculous 22 points in just 25 minutes of work.

 

Finishing Strong

The season wasn’t over, but the turnaround was complete. The Owls had fought back from losing six of their first seven games in conference play to winning six of seven, and now stood just one win away from their highest league win total and their first season with a winning percentage of .500 or better since joining C-USA.

Excitement pervaded Owls home games as the season drew to a close. The team might have been focused on the final series, a reschedule of the postponed contests against Charlotte earlier in the year, but everyone from the coaching staff to the trainers and the fans knew that this team was primed for a chance at their first-ever playoff win in the ensuing C-USA tournament. 

But the Owls still had unfinished business.

FAU took the first game in Charlotte – their first-ever win in Halton Arena – on the back of another outstanding night by Allen, who went for 30 points and 10 rebounds for her 10th double-double of the season, and an expectedly dependable performance from sophomore point guard Alexa Zaph who delivered a game-high six assists. 

Zaph, who came into her own this year as FAU’s best ball handler, took on a commanding role when Ozola and Pleskevich went down and became an accomplished passer. She closed out the year averaging 8.9 PPG and remains one of the Owls’ most reliable scorers night in and night out.

Pleskevich too had become a major piece of the Owls’ offensive puzzle by season’s end averaging 8.4 PPG, and the redshirt junior will still have two years of eligibility remaining at FAU when she begins next season.

The final tilt on the schedule brought with it some revenge for Charlotte, as they got the better of the Owls 83-73. Any hopes of a miraculous winning season for FAU faded when the 49ers rode a 42-point explosion by Octavia Jett-Wilson to break what had been a close game at halftime wide open in the third quarter and never looked back.

The loss certainly stung a bit, but there was no time to dwell on the result. Under their 8-8 conference record (10-10 overall), the Owls entered the C-USA tournament as a 3-seed.

 

Uncharted Territory

A play-in game matched up FAU with the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Blazers in the first round, and the Owls took full advantage of their extra day’s rest. Allen dropped 30 points for the fourth time this season, while Gaye added 17 more on 6-8 shooting from the field to lead FAU to its first-ever win in the C-USA tourney.

The job was far from over however, and any celebration would have to wait. Though they found themselves in uncharted territory, a now-hungry Owls squad appeared ready for a deeper playoff run than initially expected. Standing in the way though, was a rubber match with UTEP in the quarterfinals.

However, it was not to be for FAU. The Miners’ Katia Gallegos delivered a masterpiece on offense, finishing three boards shy of a triple-double, while her team’s stout defense hampered and frustrated the Owls into making too many mistakes to overcome, advancing UTEP to the semifinals by a score of 74-67.

Allen, the Owls’ leading scorer by a factor of two, was held to just 12 points before fouling out with 8:31 left to play. She had been forced into foul trouble after a questionable upgraded technical call compounded her frustration in the third quarter, and in the end, all five of her fouls came while on offense.

All of this came despite a strong effort by Janeta Rozentale, who led the Owls with 15 points that night, closing out a strong year by the Latvian international where she finished second on the team in scoring.

 

Plotting a New Course

With the season over, the only thing left for this year’s crop of Owls to do is make plans for next year and beyond. Under the COVID-19 exception, all players except Gaye are eligible to return for 2021-22. 

This leaves graduate transfer, Iggy Allen with a quandary indeed, as she is rumored to be garnering interest at the professional level from women’s leagues overseas. However, the Owls star just may choose to stick it out for one more year at FAU and make another run at a C-USA title, something she has hinted at on social media.

Trying to describe her game will run one out of superlatives. If there is any hole to be found, she turns the ball over with some frequency, leading the team with 81 giveaways. Still, if she were to return for her final year of eligibility and complete a full season with the same stellar numbers, Allen would unquestionably go down as one of the greatest players to wear an FAU uniform. 

The coming year will bring plenty of new faces to the Owls’ squad, as well as the long-awaited return of guard Juliette Gauthier, FAU’s third-leading scorer in the 2019-20 season who missed the entire season due to injury.

Redshirt freshman transfer Kimia Carter, who sat out last season due to NCAA rules after being named to the A-Sun all-freshman team in 2019-20, also waits in the wings.

Of course, it would be remiss not to reiterate how instrumental coach Jabir has been to the complete overhaul and development of this team as it is currently assembled. Jabir improved the Owls’ win total in C-USA from zero the year before his arrival to eight this season, their most ever while playing just 16 league games.

After being mired for so long in sub-.500 seasons, the Owls have become much more than a tough out. They are a true contender and will be a problem for every team they face next year.

For Iggy and the Owls, the sky’s the limit.

John DeStefano is a contributing writer for the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected] or tweet him @Johns_voice.