Closing out a stellar college hoops career

Closing out a stellar college hoops career

College athletic programs and student-athletes talk frequently about the importance of education with varying degrees of seriousness.

Safiya Martin is downright excited about her education. Having just wrapped up her collegiate basketball career at Temple University, the former Sandy Creek High star is now focused totally on graduate school and beyond.

The 6-foot-4 center was a starter this season on an excellent team that finished second in its conference to the best women’s program in history. In search of a change after high school, she moved from Fayette County all the way to Philadelphia to spend her college years in an entirely different region of the country.

“I just went for it to try something new,” she said last week in a phone interview. “Philly is nothing like Tyrone. When the opportunity presented itself, I just said, ‘Why not?’”

She was noticed by plenty of college recruiters after helping the Lady Patriots reach the GHSA state championship game her senior season. “I knew Temple would provide a great education, and I loved the coaches,” she said. “I knew absolutely nobody when I came up here. It was completely new.”

Martin’s schooling will play a big role in her future, as her goal is to become a medical doctor. The wanderlust that brought her to Pennsylvania could take her to the West coast for medical school, but she won’t be pursuing a professional basketball career overseas even though she thinks she could play somewhere.

The Owls finished this season 24-8 overall and 13-3 in American Athletic Conference play, a stellar record despite ending the year with two upset losses. They fell 63-58 to South Florida in the semifinals of the AAC tournament. Next came a 71-70 loss to Oregon in the first round of the NCAA tournament on a last-second shot. Interestingly, Martin’s high school career ended with a last-second, one-point loss in the GCAA state championship game.

Out of those three conference losses during the regular season, one was a 28-point loss at home and the other a 45-point blowout on the road. But this is likely the only conference in the nation in men’s or women’s basketball where a matchup of the top two teams would be so lopsided. That’s because the top team in the AAC is the University of Connecticut Huskies, better known as UCONN, whose second-round NCAA tournament a few days ago was its 109th in a row. Barring some unusual occurrence (like a meteor striking the campus), that team will win its fifth straight national championship, and seventh in nine years, in the next 10 days.

While it might seem almost surreal to play such a historic team like that twice a season, and probably something players would tell their grandchildren about, Martin said it was more than that for the Temple squad. Their head coach, Tonya Cardoza, was a UConn assistant for more than a decade and on four national title teams. One of her assistant coaches also played for the Huskies.

“It’s always exciting to play the number-one team in the country,” said Martin. “It’s great to be part of that era in a way.”

Being so far away from family and friends the past four years means she didn’t have a large hometown cheering section during her games. But the Temple program does something unique to benefit its players in that regard.

Every year the Owls play a “going home” game for each of its seniors. The team schedules a road game near the home of every senior who isn’t from a city with a team that is already a conference opponent. This year that meant a game at Hampton for one of Martin’s teammates who hails from Virginia, and a game at Kennesaw State for Martin herself.

“It’s really nice how they try to take you home,” said Martin, who not only had loved ones come see her play but also helped the Owls cruise to a big win in that game. One of the Kennesaw State players was Chloe Branch, a former Sandy Creek and AAU teammate, and that made the matchup special as well.

Martin’s college career mirrored her high school years in several ways. Both times as a freshman she joined a program that was rebuilding, and by the time she was a senior each team was a championship contender.

“It was great to watch the top college teams play when I was in high school,” she said. “Now that we’ve been one of those great teams, that’s so exciting. I’m so grateful to be a part of it.”