HARTFORD, Conn. – Again, the men’s basketball team entered the halftime break with the lead against its conference’s top opponent.
Again, for the third time, in fact, the Owls had an advantage over the Larry Brown-led Mustangs, and benefitted from a slow start by the conference’s player of the year in Nic Moore.
Again, any hope Temple had of knocking off the No. 20-ranked team in Division I was erased after the game clock reset itself for the second half.
Junior forward Jaylen Bond’s third and fourth fouls, the last of which came with 16 minutes, 57 seconds left in the latter half, kicked off the Owls’ demise, while late shooting struggles only made it worse in Temple’s 69-56 defeat to the Mustangs Saturday in an American Athletic Conference tournament semifinal at the XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut.
“It’s pretty hard to beat a team three times [in a season], especially a quality team with an unbelievable coach,” Brown, in his third year as SMU coach, said. “[It was] a game that kind of got off to a bad start, but I thought [sophomore guard Sterling Brown] kept us in the game. When we got behind, he made some unbelievable hustle plays.”
The Owls started the game with an eight-point lead 4:12 into the game, and held it for most of the first half, despite spotting the Mustangs an 8-0 run toward the end of the period that helped them enter the break trailing by two points.
Though Temple went toe to toe with the Mustangs through the first three minutes of the half, Bond was held to 2 minutes, 23 seconds of action after picking up his fourth foul.
From there, the wheels fell off.
“[Junior guard Quenton DeCosey] made a good pass to me and it got tipped, so I was just fighting to get the ball and they called a foul,” Bond said of the play.
By Saturday morning, Bond’s typical spot in the Owls’ starting lineup was all but assured. After suffering a sprain in his right ankle toward the end of the first half in Temple’s 80-75 victory against Memphis in the quarterfinal on Friday, his status was questionable entering the game. After having little trouble during his team’s pregame warmup, Bond’s name was included on coach Fran Dunphy’s team sheet to start the game.
“It was sore coming into the day, but I was able to play,” Bond said. “It was tough. I couldn’t really get into the flow of the game after those fouls, but I had tried to give my team energy off the bench, just talking to them and making sure they stay within the game. Personally, it was hard for me to keep with the flow of the game.”
Limited by his foul trouble, Bond finished with four points and five rebounds in 11 minutes of action. In his absence, the Mustangs outscored (43-26) and outrebounded (25-16) the Owls in the second half.
Though Temple pulled within seven points on multiple occasions, a layup in the paint by forward Cannen Cunningham with 1:11 left sealed SMU’s victory.
DeCosey led the Owls with 14 points and five rebounds, while Morgan followed with 10 points, but was held to two points through the game’s final 20 minutes of play.
“[The Mustangs have] an efficient offense,” Morgan said. “Me, myself, got a little carried away, just with my emotion, I guess,” Morgan said. “I wanted to beat that team so bad. We rushed some shots, and we weren’t very poised down the stretch and they took advantage of it.”
Philadelphia native and Villanova transfer, Markus Kennedy, sank a game-high 17 points and grabbed nine rebounds in his second time leading all scorers against the Owls this season. SMU’s starting frontcourt of seniors Yanick Moreira and Cannen Cunningham finished with 11 points apiece and combined for 12 rebounds.
As for Temple’s near-future, some bracketologists, including ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, had the Owls playing in the second round of the NCAA tournament, which will begin on Tuesday, before Saturday’s game. Although they lost to the tournament’s top seed in SMU, a place in a play-in game in Dayton, Ohio remains a very real possibility.
After a loss that capped a Temple season in which its 22-9 regular-season record was a sharp contrast to a 9-22 campaign in 2013-14, Dunphy and his players await the verdict of the NCAA Selection Committee, which will announce its crop of teams for the field of 68 on Sunday night.
Until then, there’s nothing more they can do.
“There’s great angst,” Dunphy said. “I didn’t think a lot about it going into the game [Saturday] … but now – I just said it to our guys – we’re in an unknown area that we’re not really familiar with. We just have to take a step back and see what this next 24 hours brings.”
Andrew Parent can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Andrew_Parent23.