When Cincinnati junior forward Jermaine Sanders hit two free throws with 12:31 to go in the second half on Sunday, it gave his team a 59-40 lead over Temple. It looked like the Owls were on their way to one of the worst losses of the season.
From there, Temple finished the game outscoring No. 15 Cincinnati 36-21. The Owls lost the game 80-76, but it was a single-digit loss to a ranked team. It also followed a different formula than most of the team’s losses this season: many of them involved Temple keeping the game close but fading away at some point in the second half.
However, coach Fran Dunphy said the team was disappointed in the loss. Redshirt-senior guard Dalton Pepper said he wasn’t happy after the game despite having scored a career-high 33 points.
“We have 12 games left, and 12 really tough games,” Dunphy said. “The next test is coming Wednesday night against a good Rutgers team, and we need to do the best that we can.”
The team came into the season with 10 eligible players and has lost sophomore forward Daniel Dingle to a torn meniscus. The players have claimed their losses aren’t due to the short bench and Dunphy has said multiple times that there’s nothing the team can do to immediately remedy the problem.
“If it is fatigue, there’s not a lot we can do about it,” Dunphy said after the loss to La Salle. “We’re pushing ourselves as good as we can. We’re getting proper rest. We’re not going crazy at practice. [We’re] trying to do a much more mental approach than physical. It’s just one of those things.”
“They’re shorthanded, got guys sitting out for next year,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. “They’re going to be a problem for everyone in our league next season.”
Before the season, Dunphy said, “We don’t have a lot of margin for error” and this season would be one of the most challenging of his career.
“I thought it would be challenging, and it certainly has been,” Dunphy said. “We have to continue to plug away and be as positive as we can be. I wish that Daniel Dingle had not gotten hurt. [That could] have done a little bit more for us. I wish that [junior guard] Will [Cummings] didn’t go down [for] a little bit, but that’s part of what happens in seasons.”
The team has four players coming into the fold next season: high school senior forward Obi Enechionyia, former Texas forward Jaylen Bond, former Massachusetts guard Jesse Morgan and former Clemson guard Devin Coleman. The current team will likely return everyone except for Pepper.
“I think, also, there is a coming-of-age in a lot of games that we have played, and this is another one,” Dunphy said. “Will it help us later on? That’s the hope. Josh Brown is getting to be a better player as a freshman and getting a lot of minutes. [Sophomore guard] Quenton DeCosey realizing that he can play some pretty good defense and he did some really good things defensively [Sunday]. There’s a lot of growth left in us and that’s the hope.”
“You just have to move on to the next game and focus on implementing what we kind of did in that last stretch of this game and make sure we use that for the full game against Rutgers and get stops and build off that,” Cummings said.
The Owls have positive signs to take from the season. Nine of the team’s 13 losses have been by nine or less points. Redshirt-junior forward Anthony Lee is averaging a conference-leading 9.1 rebounds per game. As of Sunday, the Owls were the only Division I team to have four players averaging 14 or more points – those four players being Pepper, Cummings, DeCosey and Lee.
On the other hand, the rest of the healthy players – Brown, freshman forward Mark Williams, sophomore center Devontae Watson, junior forward Jimmy McDonnell and junior guard Nick Pendergast – are averaging 9.3 points a game combined.
“Our first half was not great [against Cincinnati],” Dunphy said. “We shot it poorly in the first half. There’s a little bit of fool’s gold in there because Pepper was going crazy. I think our offense was better, I thought we found opportunities to get it to the rim. We still needed to be more efficient in our execution.”
Although it seems unlikely that the Owls will make the NCAA tournament for a seventh straight time, the team is still looking at their schedule game by game.
“What I’m worried about is ‘Let’s prepare like crazy for Rutgers on Wednesday,’” Dunphy said. “It’s one game at a time, and we’re going to watch some film tomorrow and have a couple days to prepare for Rutgers.”
Evan Cross can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @EvanCross.