Four years ago, the men’s basketball team won its season opener against Delaware and went on to reach the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. Since then, the Owls had lost three straight season-opening games and haven’t qualified for the Big Dance.
The Owls (0-1) stuck with recent form and lost to Auburn, 80-78, on Friday. Despite a strong performance by freshman Mark Tyndale, the Owls were victimized by a smaller Tigers lineup that shot a blistering 56 percent from three point range in the first half.
“We had to get those shots,” Auburn coach Jeff Lebo said, “because I think [anybody] could play and get a couple of boards on us.”
Everything seemed to be going the Owls’ way early in the first half. The Tigers missed eight of their first ten shots as the Owls ran up a 21-5 lead through seven minutes of play. Coach John Chaney then substituted in freshmen guards Chris Clark and DaShone Kirkendoll on successive dead balls, and the momentum shifted.
The Tigers went on a 23-6 run in part because of the younger Owls’ struggles in their first college game. The Owls lost the lead for the first time at 28-27 with 6:47 remaining the first half and would not regain it until a late second-half run.
“I found out that we just can’t continue to go big,” Chaney said. “You lose a lot of adjustment that you have to make, and we can’t put a lot of freshmen on the floor at the same time, and we did both. I put [the freshmen] in and I thought they were doing pretty good in scoring, but we just had breakdowns in defense.”
By halftime, the Tigers had topped last year’s high for three-pointers made in a game, dropping 14 of 25 attempts in the first 20 minutes. Every Tiger field goal in the first half was assisted. Auburn led 50-41 at the break.
“They had five guards who could dribble, pass and shoot,” Chaney said. “That’s tough to defend.”
The Owls crawled back into the game in the second half, never embarking on a big scoring run but not allowing the Tigers to pull away. Sophomore guard Dustin Salisbery scored 19 points off the bench to help the Owls cut the deficit to two points with less than a minute to play. Tyndale, who had 10 of his 19 points in the second half, hit a three-pointer to give the Owls a 78-77 lead with 22 seconds remaining.
Then Auburn senior guard Ian Young (28 points, six assists) drilled a long three-pointer to take back the lead, 80-78. With 13 seconds left, the Owls never got a chance to answer. Point guard Mardy Collins dribbled the ball off his foot, leading to a meaningless jump ball with 0.4 seconds remaining. Though Temple maintained possession, the game ended uneventfully with a Tiger defender deflecting the resulting inbounds pass.
Junior forward Antywane Robinson, who was pulled early in the first half due to ineffectiveness according to Chaney, said the anticlimactic ending was not as frustrating as the overall loss.
“We let the game slip away at the beginning. It wasn’t just the last play,” he said. “If we would’ve capitalized on some things at the beginning of the game, it wouldn’t have had to come down to the last play.”
Collins, who was disappointed he botched the final possession, said his career-high nine assist and zero turnovers will probably be overlooked.
“We lost, and I made the mistake at the end,” he said. “So [coach Chaney] probably won’t even see that.”
The Owls played at Georgetown on Monday, where they hoped to break their losing habit. Of the previous three seasons in which the Owls have dropped the season opener, they lost the next game as well.
Robinson said there was still reason to believe this team could be the first one in four years to make the NCAA Tournament.
“We can run a lot more, we’ve got people who can fill on the wing, and we just have a lot more talent than we did last year,” Robinson said. “We have more offense-oriented people that can shoot and put the ball on the floor better, and it’ll be a lot more exciting year than it was last year.”
Benjamin Watanabe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.