Tonya Cardoza fully understands that membership in the American Athletic Conference comes with the daunting task of facing defending national champion UConn twice during an 18-game conference regular season schedule. This is something that she admitted she is not looking forward to.
Cardoza spent more than a decade as an assistant coach under UConn Hall of Famer Geno Auriemma. She is all too familiar with how he runs his program and his current collection of talented players. Yet, she understands that these games can be utilized as a means for her team to improve and as a recruiting tool.
What Cardoza is still trying to grasp is how emotional it is going to be to face Cincinnati twice. Bearcats’ coach Jamelle Elliott, a former player and long-time assistant coach at UConn, has been a dear friend for years. Spending at least 80 minutes on opposite ends of the court this season is shaping up to be an uneasy experience.
“The two games that I’m not really looking forward to are the ones against Cincinnati,’’ Cardoza said. “Jamelle and I are great friends and we’ve leaned on each other a lot. We call each other after great wins and we support each other after losses. And those are two games that … Obviously, we’re competitive and we both want to win. But it’s going to be a little bittersweet.’’
Cardoza became an assistant coach at UConn during Elliott’s junior season in 1994-95. The Huskies earned their first national championship that season in finishing 35-0, with Cardona becoming a big-sister figure for Elliott.
Elliott would join Cardoza on Auriemma’s staff in 1997-98. It was then when their friendship began to blossom. They were together until Cardoza was hired at Temple July 1, 2008.
“Ever since we started coaching together our friendship kind of flourished from there,’’ Elliott said. “She was the first one to leave the nest when she took the job at Temple, and it was a sad day for me. I was used to being with her for 13, 14 years almost every day. Then she took the step to become a head coach and I kind of heard the stories what it’s like to be a head coach. By her stepping out there, I was even more prepared when it was my opportunity because she was able to kind of tell me what it was that I needed to expect, what it was that I was going to go through, even though it didn’t help much (laugh). But she was kind of that mentor again. She’s always kind of been that mentor for me, and now that we’re both head coaches, now we go through it together.’’
“We talk all the time during the season. We probably talked three or four times in the last month, for the last 2-3 months about what are we going to do with the summer workouts, how much time are you going to spend? Are you going to use all of your time when we can start practice or are you going to wait? So she’s kind of that sounding board for me now. We don’t make those big decisions without talking to each other.’’
Cardoza is beginning her sixth season with the Owls (107-56). She has led them to three NCAA tournament appearances from 2009-11, one trip to the WNIT in 2012 and four 20-win seasons.
Elliott, who was hired at Cincinnati May 5, 2009, is beginning her fifth season with the Bearcats (49-74). They also reached the WNIT in 2012.
“That’s the bittersweet part I think a little bit is that you kind of look forward to seeing how they’re going to do in the league and the fact that you’re going to be playing them twice,’’ Auriemma said. “You’re going to be at their place, which I think is great for them to get Connecticut in the building. This will be the first time we’ve ever played at Temple against Temple. We’ve been there before. And I think both of them are going to do a great job. In terms of who was helped a little bit by the changes I think Tonya and Jamelle were in that you go from 16 teams to 10. It’s probably a little more manageable for everybody than 16.’’
Temple will travel to Cincinnati Jan. 18. The Owls will host the Bearcats Feb. 15. Cardoza said the most difficult part about playing against Elliott is that one of them has to lose.
“We’ve just never been in that moment before,’’ Cardoza said. “Obviously, when I first did it against Coach (Auriemma March 23, 2010) it was something that was hard. But now with Jamelle it’s a little different because we’re like best friends. We really do talk to each other about three times a week. We’re both very competitive. So I know both of us are going to do everything in our power to make sure we beat the other guy. But at the end we’ll enjoy it and we’ll make a bet that the winner has to pay for dinner. Winner has to pay.’’
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