Owls battle back to secure must-win victory

Tai Strickland scored a career-high 27 points in the Owls’ comeback victory.

Tai Strickland, a redshirt-sophomore guard, drives towards the basket during an Owls' game against Southern Methodist University at the Liacouras Center on Feb. 17. | AMBER RITSON / THE TEMPLE NEWS

With less than three minutes remaining in the second half, redshirt-sophomore guard Tai Strickland nailed a stepback jumper late in the shot clock, narrowing the Owls’ deficit to three points and generating momentum as the Liacouras Center crowd came to their feet.

Temple University men’s basketball (14-9, 7-2 The American Athletic Conference) defeated Southern Methodist University (18-6, 9-3 The American) at home Wednesday night, earning a signature win to help keep pace with their American Athletic Conference Tournament aspirations.

Strickland was an offensive standout, scoring a career-high 27 points and making key shots down the stretch to keep the Owls within striking distance in a game where they trailed for most of the contest. 

“The driving lanes were open, and that’s kind of what I do best,” Strickland said. “I can get in gaps, create contact, get to the free throw line and get buckets.”

The Owls started slow, continuing to feel the effects of limited offensive weapons, due to injuries sustained by guards redshirt-freshman Damian Dunn and freshman Jeremiah Williams against the University of South Florida on Feb. 7. Dunn and Willimas are the team’s leading scorers and are both still considered day-to-day.

The Mustangs’ defense forced Temple into several possessions late in the shot clock, pressuring the Owls to take contested shots. Nearly halfway into the first half, the Mustangs established a 17-7 lead.

The Mustangs were without senior guard Kendric Davis, who leads The American in scoring, averaging 19.1 points per game. Despite his absence, the Mustangs found players down low who either outmuscled the Owls in the paint for baskets or kicked the ball out for open shots on the perimeter.

The Owls found their footing towards the end of the first half by forcing turnovers and turning them into fast-break opportunities. With less than five minutes remaining in the first half, a jumper from freshman guard Jahlil White tied the game at 22-22 after the Owls trailed by as many as 10 points.

Despite the strong response, the Mustangs continued attacking the paint for high-quality looks at the basket and free throw opportunities when the Owls’ tight defense turned a little too aggressive. Temple went into the half trailing 28-22.

The Owls shooting woes continued into the second half as they couldn’t generate any significant offense off of their forced turnovers to cut into the Mustangs’ lead. Temple shot 30 percent from the field and 14 percent from beyond the arc for the game.

Key baskets kept the game close despite trailing for most of the half, with the Owls never behind by more than 10.

Strickland erupted during important stretches for the Owls, scoring 21 points in the second half to keep Temple at arms-length, and ultimately setting up a comeback late in the second half

Owls’ junior forward Sage Tolbert grabbed an offensive rebound and scored a putback, setting up an and-one opportunity to tie the game at 51. 

A clutch layup by Strickland gave the Owls a 53-51 lead, and widespread solid free throw shooting sealed the game in the closing minutes.

Head coach Aaron McKie was proud of the team’s performance and how they responded after falling behind for most of the game. 

“What I’m impressed about the most is I got so many young guys out there and all our games have been close,” McKie said. “Those guys have been playing with great poise.”

The Owls will hit the road to face the University of Cincinnati (16-9. 6-6 The American) on Feb. 20 at 2 p.m.

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