Before the season started, Dalton Pepper and Will Cummings both had a career high of 15 points. They’ve both topped it in the first two games.
Both players set a career high in the 78-73 opening win at the University of Pennsylvania — Pepper, a redshirt-senior guard, led the team with 19 points and Cummings, a junior guard, was just behind at 18 points. In the 81-77 loss to Kent State, Cummings led the team with 17 points and Pepper matched his previous career high with 15 points.
“I just wanted to go out and play as hard as I can and try to give as much as I can to the team,” Pepper said after the season opener. “I got the jitters out coming out and making the first couple shots. It’s what you want to do. Just come out, play as hard as you can and just do what you can.”
Pepper set multiple career highs against Penn. Along with his 19 points, he played for 31 minutes, breaking his previous best of 26. He broke that record again in the Kent State game, playing 36 minutes, the second-most on the team.
Pepper also grabbed nine rebounds against Penn, nearly doubling his previous career high of five. It was his second career start, and first at Temple.
“Nobody’s rooting for Dalton Pepper more than our coaching staff and his teammates, because he’s earned this right,” coach Fran Dunphy said. “We want him to be the best player he can be.”
“He’s a really good man and I’m rooting like crazy for him,” Dunphy added.
Pepper is the only senior on the team, and despite averaging 11.3 minutes a game last season, is one of the more experienced Owls. He said he feels more comfortable on the court.
“Two freshmen are going to play a lot,” Pepper said. “We have three sophomores who are going to play a lot. It’s really only Will, [redshirt-junior forward Anthony Lee] and me. Just gotta step up and lead those guys and show them the way. Take after what Scootie [Randall], Rahlir [Hollis-Jefferson], Khalif [Wyatt], Jake [O’Brien] and T.J. [DiLeo] did.”
“It’s a great experience, honestly, knowing that you have to go out there and step up and just take things that you learned from those guys in the past like Khalif and [Ramone Moore] and Juan [Fernandez] and Scootie,” Cummings said. “Just implement those to the younger guys and make sure that they’re listening and understanding how critical the game is and just understanding the time and the score and just make sure we’re doing our jobs.”
Cummings scored 12 points in the second half against Penn and 14 in first half versus Kent State. He played 29 minutes in the Penn game, nearly six more than his average last year, but Dunphy after the Penn game said he wanted Cummings to have more playing time, and he played 34 minutes versus Kent State.
“He can figure out that we need him to be very aggressive,” Dunphy said. “What we can’t do is have him get two fouls and be out of the game for as much as he was in the first half. We weathered that storm, but I don’t want to play that many minutes without him. He’s a very aggressive guy and he made a couple fantastic plays tonight down the stretch.”
Cummings is the only guard to have played last year in the NCAA tournament. Sophomore guard Quenton DeCosey said Cummings is, for now, the go-to guy in crunch time.
“Just to spread the floor, give him a ball screen,” DeCosey said. “Anybody could really take that last shot… First Will, and then anybody could take the shot.”
“I think it’s more by committee, but Will’s been doing a pretty good job,” Dunphy said. “He’s hard to guard. He’s so fast. He just needs to slow down a little bit and gather himself… I think he had two offensive fouls in the second half [against Kent State] and the last one was a tough one… even if he had pulled up and shot a little bank eight-footer that would have been okay. But he’s learning.”
Dunphy said Cummings’ play was not good enough in the second half, adding the guard needed to play more consistently.
“There were stretches of dead time in the second half where Will didn’t really get much going on,” Dunphy said. “I thought he tried to force the issue a little too much. He’s got to trust a little more in his teammates, and he will. He knows that better than anybody.”
While Penn only led for 19 seconds of the second half, the game was tight for the last six minutes. The Kent State game was tight for the majority of the second half. Cummings said the August trip to Europe helps the Owls stay focused in close games.
“We went down a lot in Europe,” Cummings said. “Knowing that we’ve been there before, I think that helped us a lot. Make sure we stay calm and know basketball’s a game of runs. We’re going to have our runs, other teams are going to have their runs. Make sure we stay poised and under control and make free throws down the stretch.”
Evan Cross can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @EvanCross.