UNCASVILLE, Conn. – Just five minutes into the game, Owls’ redshirt sophomore guard Khalif Battle, who was benched in the second half of Temple’s 89-97 loss to Vanderbilt University, (1-2, 0-0 Southeastern Conference) trotted onto the court, created open space for a shot and airballed a three-point attempt.
Seconds later, Battle regained possession of the ball, following a Rutgers turnover, and nailed an almost identical three-point shot to put the Owls up 18-10.
“I thought [Battle’s] play was really good,” said head coach Aaron McKie. “I’ve been trying to get him to be more of a leader and to just organize us more and he made some huge plays down the stretch.”
The Owls (2-2, 0-0 American Athletic Conference) defeated Rutgers University (3-1, 0-0 Big Ten Conference) on Friday evening at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. After unexpected losses to Wagner College on Nov. 7 and Vanderbilt on Nov. 15, the Owls entered the weekend desperate to win in order to keep their hopes of being an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament alive.
The Owls were in rhythm from the opening tip-off, leading for all but 16 seconds in the first half and all 20 minutes of the second half. Sophomore forward Zach Hicks, who entered the game fresh off a 20-point performance against the Commodores, hit two early three-pointers to set the tone.
Battle, who continues to be the first player off the bench for the Owls, finished as the team’s leading scorer with 24 points while shooting 8-17 from the field.
“That’s the expectation for him,” McKie said. “To be able to do it on both ends and he scored when we needed him to score, he made some big free throws down the stretch for us.”
After entering halftime with a 38-23 lead, the Owls found themselves on the wrong side of a 13-4 run that cut their lead to just six with less than seven minutes remaining. Sophomore guard Hysier Miller knocked down a wide-open three-pointer to stop the bleeding and help Temple maintain their late-game lead.
Miller, who has had a slower start to the season than the Owls had hoped for, recorded his first career double-double by finishing with 12 points and 10 assists.
The Scarlet Knights were able to cut the Owls’ lead to just four with 11 seconds to go, but key late-game free throws from Miller helped clinch the victory.
“He was able to settle us and bring us back,” McKie said. “Sometimes when we get ourselves in trouble with turnover, especially when you’re playing a good defense, you give a team life and energy so I wanted him to just manage the game.”
Temple will need to continue collecting wins during the next few weeks of their out-of-conference schedule to be considered for an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament in March. It is still early, but after two early season losses, Temple will have little room for error going forward.
“If we come out and do what we’re supposed to do offensively and defensively, I’m fine,” McKie said. “But we have those moments, and we had one of them tonight, where we get out of sorts.”
The Owls will look to continue to strengthen their out-of-conference resume when they travel to Brooklyn, New York, to play in the Empire Classic on Nov. 21 and 22.
Temple will play St John’s University (4-0, 0-0 Big East Conference) in their first game and either Syracuse University (1-1, 0-0 Atlantic Coastal Conference) or the University of Richmond (2-2, 0-0 Atlantic 10 Conference) in their second game, depending on the result of their first game.
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