At the postgame press conference following his team’s 40-37 edging of American University on Friday night, Will Cummings had a few reasons to let out a laugh when fielding his first question.
For one, the senior guard had just played the entirety of the 40-minute contest in the opening game of the season. To boot, his team had just won a game with 40 points, its lowest point total in a victory since 1947.
“It was just something that happened,” Cummings said of his minutes. “I just went with the flow, I guess. I guess coach [Fran Dunphy] felt he needed me on the floor for 40 minutes, so I just played 40 minutes.”
Of his team’s 40-point performance on Friday night, though, Cummings said that possibility would not have surprised him prior to tip-off.
“I would’ve said, ‘You might be right,’ because we’ve been working so hard on defense,” Cummings said. “That’s the big emphasis we’ve been putting on. … Overall, I’m pretty glad how we started the season guarding on defense.”
Monday night’s game took on a different form from the outset, though, when Louisiana Tech scored more points in the first half – 38 – than American totaled by the end of Friday’s contest. Temple outlasted its opponent in the second period, topping the Bulldogs, who had received votes in last week’s Associated Press Top 25 poll, 82-75.
Last season, Cummings’ squad turned in a defensive performance that included an average of 78.1 points per game allowed, which ranked No. 330 out of 345 Division I teams. Opponents shots 47.4 percent against the Owls, which ranks No. 323 in Division I, while opponents’ 35.9 percent average from 3-point range ranked 267th last season.
Temple allowed 80 points or more in 10 of its 19 regulation losses last season, while surrendering point totals of 80 and 81 in overtime losses to Texas and Memphis, respectively. The Owls allowed 94 points in a double-overtime defeat to Central Florida in the conference tournament, icing Temple’s 9-22 season and effectively sealing team defense as a point of emphasis for the 2014-15 squad.
“The reality is it couldn’t have been any worse than we were last year,” Dunphy said. “We just were not very good. … Now I think we’re buying in. We understand it’s part of the game we have to be better at. Even some of the shots that [LA Tech] made [Monday] were pretty well-contested.”
On Friday night, combating American’s variation of the zone defense, Temple’s offense struggled en route to shooting 22.9 percent from the floor. The team’s defensive effort needed to be solid as a result, and it did its job, holding American to 37 points on 12-of-39 shooting, a 30.8 percent clip.
“Their strategy was to just sit on that 3-point line and play in that zone,” Cummings said. “That was the first time I’ve ever seen a zone like that in my life. We’re not really worried about the offensive end. We have so many people on the team that can score. We’re just glad we came out and played as hard on defense that we did.”
In Monday’s contest, the Bulldogs hit 40.3 percent of their shots from the floor on 27-of-67 shooting. The Bulldogs went cold in the second half, though, shooting 39.4 percent in the period en route to the Temple victory.
“We kind of just locked in,” Cummings said. “We huddled as a group and said we needed to get stops. They’re a great team. We had to limit them in what they can do and it worked.”
For a group that struggled habitually on the defensive end last season, the Owls held their first two opponents of the season to 36.8 percent shooting, and 112 points. Temple will face its toughest task of the season so far when it tips off against Duke in a semifinal of the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York on Friday.
“This will be the sixth time in nine years we will have played Duke,” Dunphy said. “We know what we’re in for, we know how good they are, it’s a wonderful challenge and that’s what we’ll think about as we go about it.”
Andrew Parent can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter @Andrew_Parent23