Temple has truly taken the mantra “it’s not about how you start, but how you finish” to heart during conference play this season. Whether it is the difference in their energy or the personnel on the floor, the Owls seem to show up down the stretch.
It also helps when the Owls’ two best players are coming off the bench.
Temple Men’s Basketball (11-9, 5-2 The American Athletic Conference) defeated East Carolina University (10-10, 1-6 The American) 73-58 on Wednesday night at The Liacouras Center.
“Conference play is always tough,” said head coach Aaron McKie. “I told the guys at halftime that we were playing like we were fighting to be at the bottom, not like the top of the conference.”
ECU was without their leading scorer, sophomore guard Javon Small, who was averaging 15.8 points per contest before missing the previous two games. But even with Small in the lineup, the Pirates have had a rough start to conference play, sitting at 1-5 in conference play entering their game against Temple.
However, you could never tell that ECU has experienced conference hiccups with how sloppy Temple started the game.
The Owls were unable to secure rebounds for the first nine minutes of play as ECU, the American’s fourth-best rebounding team, led 16-6 in the category early on.
Forward Nick Jourdain, center Emmanuel Okpomo and forward Zach Hicks combined for zero rebounds midway through the first half. The three sophomores have been key supplemental pieces down low for the Owls on the defensive side of the ball but were ineffective early on.
This game served as yet another example of the hole left by sophomore center Jamille Reynolds’ thumb injury.
ECU sophomore forward Brandon Johnson, who entered the game leading the American with 8.9 rebounds per game, was one of three ECU players to grab five rebounds during the first half as ECU was up 29-14 on the boards.
McKie’s decision to bring redshirt sophomores Khalif Battle and Damian Dunn in off the bench generated a momentum shift for the Owls, but Jourdain was tagged with a flagrant foul a minute later and was substituted out. The presence of Battle and Dunn creates many more scoring opportunities beyond the arc for the Owls, but Jourdain is a key piece to this lineup.
“It’s an advantage for me early on,” Dunn said about his role as sixth man. “I look at it as a positive thing more than anything.”
The five that features Battle, Dunn, Jourdain, and sophomores Jahlil White and Zach Hicks has been the Owls’ most potent scoring attack, and it showed again tonight. Trailing by nine with more than seven minutes remaining in the half, this unit mounted a seven-point comeback to bring the score to 21-19.
Yet in what was one of Temple’s worst offensive halves of the season, the Owls shot 30 percent from the field and 23 percent from three. A bright spot was Temple’s plus-seven turnover margin, but it meant little when ECU was able to convert 13 second-chance points on their own end to make the score 33-28 at the half.
In the second half, the Owls found their footing on the defensive end. Whether it was forcing misses or turnovers, Temple disrupted any rhythm ECU had entering halftime. The Owls even made four straight field goals to take a 42-40 lead over ECU.
However, with ECU losing their previous three games by double digits, they did not allow Temple storm ahead as easily as Memphis, Cincinnati and South Florida did. The Pirates went on a quick 6-0 run, yet baskets by Dunn and Battle locked the two teams at 46 with a little more than 11 minutes left.
Dunn and Battle were the key catalysts to Temple’s success. While the other starters and role players provided limited contributions, Dunn’s 22 and Battle’s 20 points lifted the Owls when they needed it most. Dunn made 16 of 18 free throws and Battle had several defensive rebounds in the second half as well.
“I just feel like we’re kinda manipulative in a sense,” Dunn said. “Defense thinking it’s me getting downhill when really it’s him. We’re getting more comfortable with it.”
The duo helped Temple generate a 14-0 run in the middle of the final period and they defended two of ECU’s best offensive weapons down the stretch.
While Battle and Dunn may have both come off the bench, they continue to make their mark on each game.
Up next, the Owls will face their toughest opponent yet in the nation’s No. 1 ranked University of Houston Cougars (18-1, 6-0 The American) in Houston’s Fertitta Center at 3 p.m. on Jan. 22.