A tale of two teams: Good wins and bad losses

The assistant sports editor writes about Temple’s up-and-down season.

Redshirt-senior guard Josh Brown reacts to a last-second 3-point shot Memphis made during its 75-72 win in overtime on Saturday at the Liacouras Center. JAMIE COTTRELL / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Temple’s season has been like the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

One team beats Southern Methodist, stopping its 33-game home winning streak with a game-winning shot by redshirt-senior guard Josh Brown with 1.2 seconds left. The other loses games to less talented and less athletic teams like George Washington University and La Salle.

Long story short, the Owls (8-9, 1-5 American Athletic Conference) have looked like an NCAA Tournament team at times during their up-and-down season. Other times, they have looked like a languid bunch — turning over the ball and taking poor shots.

After winning the Charleston Classic final, 67-60, against Clemson University on Nov. 19, many national pundits said Temple could be the surprise team in The American to reach the NCAA Tournament behind ranked teams Wichita State and Cincinnati.

But was the early season hype unwarranted? Did analysts jump the gun?

Not necessarily. Temple has the makings of a tournament team —  athleticism and strong backcourt play.

Despite sitting below .500, the Owls have solid victories on their NCAA Tournament resume against Southern Methodist and the University of South Carolina. Temple currently ranks first in strength of schedule in Division I. Two of the teams Temple beat on its way to win the Charleston Classic — Auburn University and Clemson — have done the Owls favors. Clemson has only lost one game and Auburn is undefeated since then. Each team ranks in the Top 25 of the Associated Press and USA Today Coaches polls.

But Temple has been a victim of self-inflicted mistakes and inconsistent play.

A late game-winning shot cost Temple for the second time this month in a 75-72 loss to Memphis on Sunday at the Liacouras Center. The Owls played well down the stretch and hit tough shots toward the end of regulation to force overtime, but the Tigers just made one more clutch play.

The first game-winning shot came against Cincinnati on Jan. 4. A field-goal drought in the last five minutes of that game and coach Fran Dunphy earning a technical foul for smacking a water bottle onto the court led to that loss.

“We can’t keep letting games come down to the last shot,” junior guard Shizz Alston Jr. said.

Temple’s inconsistent play also led to a five-game losing streak — the longest since the 2013-14 season. The way the season has seesawed feels eerily similar to the 2016-17 season.

Like last season, the Owls won an early-season tournament, sat on an above .500 record, received votes in top-25 polls and then sputtered into losing streaks.

If Temple wants to bounce back, it needs consistent scoring production from its big three of Alston, sophomore guard Quinton Rose and senior forward Obi Enechionyia.

Memphis’ players celebrate their 75-72 overtime win on Saturday at the Liacouras Center. | JAMIE COTRELL / THE TEMPLE NEWS

When the Owls opened up the season 6-2, the trio combined to average 47.2 points per game — nearly 70 percent of the team average. While the team has won two of its past nine games, the group is averaging 33.4 points per game.

Alston, who opened up the first eight games of the season shooting 53.5 percent from 3-point range, found a rhythm against Memphis after shooting a combined 1-for-8 from deep in his previous two outings. He poured in 19 points on 5-of-8 shooting on 3-pointers in the loss.

So what worked for him against the Tigers to get out of a brief slump?

“I’ve just been shooting in the gym,” Alston said. “[Freshman guard] Nate [Pierre-Louis] is one of the guys who gets in the gym a lot. So I just got in the gym with him the other day. … I expect to go through a little slump, but I tried to bounce back today.”

Speaking of the freshman guard, Pierre-Louis has carved himself a role in Dunphy’s rotation. He made his first career start on Saturday in place of Rose, who showed up a few minutes late for shootaround, and took full advantage of the opportunity on both ends of the floor.

Pierre-Louis scored a career-high 23 points by getting to the rack with ease and knocking down three 3-pointers.

When the Owls’ big three struggles to produce, they need a significant boost from their bench, even though there’s no go-to sixth man.

With Pierre-Louis’ performance and play as of late, could he give the Owls that extra boost?

“We can’t count on Nate having that kind of performance that he had today,” Dunphy said. “He was spectacular. Some of those threes he made in the second half single-handedly brought us back.”

“It had us in position to win the game, but we didn’t finish it like we could’ve,” he added.

For the remainder of the season, will Temple be Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde? Only time will tell. And time for Temple to turn things around is running out.

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