Cougars hand Owls third conference loss

The stage seemed too big for Temple Men’s Basketball in a 81-65 loss against the No. 3 Houston Cougars in front of a packed crowd.

Houston took over in the second half to hand the Owls a loss in front of a sellout Liacouras Center crowd. | ROBERT JOSEPH CRUZ / THE TEMPLE NEWS

For an inspiring 20 minutes of action, the Owls showed why they are near the top of the American Athletic Conference standings. However, the final 20 minutes proved why the Houston Cougars are the conference’s bonafide leader and a top-five team in the country. 

Temple Men’s Basketball (14-10, 8-3 The American) lost to the University of Houston (22-2, 10-1 The American) 81-65 on Sunday night at The Liacouras Center. Houston’s second-half defense combined with 26 second half points in the paint to secure the victory in the latter stages of the game. 

The Cougars shot more than 72 percent from the field in the second half whereas the Owls made five field goals altogether in the half. 

“We got to learn how to stay focused and play hard for 40 minutes,” said Temple head coach Aaron McKie. 

Temple struggled to put the ball in the basket in the early stages of the first half, making just one of their first eight shot attempts from the field. Despite their early struggles on offense, the Owls’ defense held strong and kept Houston to just 13 points in the first 10 minutes of the game.

Sophomore forward Jamille Reynolds, who did not play in the Owls’ 56-55 win against the Cougars on Jan. 22 quickly became the early focal point for Temple on offense. The Owls used pick and rolls to create opportunities for their big man in the paint, causing interior problems for the Cougars defense. 

Redshirt sophomore guard Khalif Battle, though, soon became the key catalyst for Temple’s offense in the first half. Each time it seemed like Houston could create and expand a lead, Battle hit a contested three or step-back jumper to keep Temple in the game. 

Battle finished the first half with 11 points, while the Owls shot 52.9 percent from three. He went on to score 24 for the game. 

During the middle of the half, Temple even went on a run where they hit seven consecutive field goals, too. The Owls and Cougars each shot the ball much better than their first contest against each other, but key turnovers and fouls kept each team from expanding their lead.

The Cougars’ X-factor was freshman forward Jarace Walker. Walker, who had just nine points the last time the two teams met, was scoring from all three levels for Houston. Walker finished the game with 23 points.

The first half ended with Houston making no field goals in the final five minutes and the Owls entered halftime with a 37-33 lead. 

Houston’s second half focus was clearly to create opportunities inside. The Cougars shot roughly 35 percent from three in the first half, and Sampson knew it would take offensive pressure to get back on the board. 

Then the Cougars rattled off a quick six points, forcing McKie to put in Battle, Reynolds and redshirt sophomore Damian Dunn earlier than expected. Houston then scored another basket off a turnover, bringing their lead to four. 

The start to both halves seemed to be a clear sign of the tempo to come. Temple’s first half shooting stayed steady throughout the period. Yet it meant little when Houston’s second half energy far surpassed that of the home team. 

The Cougars were aggressive on defense, forcing turnovers on consecutive possessions and suffocating the Owls’ passing lanes. The Owls had not faced a defense so physically intense yet this season, especially not in their last time facing Houston. The Cougars went on a 13-0 run to start the half. 

The Cougars seemed to be gathering every defensive rebound, forcing every Temple mistake and generating the best possible looks on offense. Temple trailed by ten with nearly 13 minutes remaining.

The Owls’ offense was lifeless, chucking up low-percentage shots throughout those nine minutes. The crowd, once vibrant and on their feet, fell pretty quiet during the run as well. 

However, the Owls did find some rhythm on the defensive side of the ball, holding Houston to zero field goals across four whole minutes of play. This rhythm turned into some offense with nine minutes remaining, and the Owls closed the game to within five. 

Yet what began as a clean-shooting first half became a Houston-style affair where both teams had to move the ball quickly to avoid being cornered on the court.

In the end, Houston’s energized performance on both sides of the ball throughout the second half gave them their fourth consecutive victory. The Cougars used similar slip patterns and overpowered the Owls’ isolation defense to take the victory. 

“Our execution was really good in the second half,” said head coach Kelvin Sampson. “We put a lot of pressure on their bigs. The biggest difference, though, is our defense.”

In front of a packed Liacouras Center, Temple competed for one half. The Owls fans showed they believed this game mattered to them for the time being, but Temple did not do enough to keep the stands filled for all 40 minutes. 

“I give them an A,” Sampson added about the fans. 

Up next, Temple travels to Dallas to take on Southern Methodist University (8-16, 3-8 The American) at 8 p.m. on Feb. 8.

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