Photos: Mike Nance
By: Jeremy Goode
PHILADELPHIA – It was a tale of two halves; after the Temple Owls led in almost every category in the first half against the University of Houston, including a four-point lead going into the intermission. The Cougars adjusted offensively for the second half, however, outscoring the Owls in the final 20 minutes by 20 points and giving the Owls an 81-65 loss to the third-ranked Cougars.
“We were not on our A-game,” head coach of Temple University Aaron Mckie said. “It has been a theme of ours where we play good for 30 minutes, and I thought the start of the second half is where we dropped our heads.”
With one of the top teams in town and the number one team in the American Athletic Conference (AAC), Temple matched Houston’s offensive talent early in front of over 10,000 fans.
The Owls shot 48 percent from the field on 27 shots, and 53 percent from the three-point line on 17 shots. The Owls outshot Houston in the first 20 minutes in those respective categories by 8 percent and 17 percent. Temple guard Khalif Battle came off the bench shooting 4 for 7 from the field, while making all three of his three-point shots from various points well beyond the three-point line. Damian Dunn also came off the bench and connected on two three-pointers himself.
When asked about his first half performance, Battle admitted he could have scored more and expressed optimism that he would get better.
Temple’s bench would ultimately contribute to 23 of Temple’s 37 points in the first half from Battle, Dunn, and Jamille Reynolds.
“That Battle kid… the shots that he took… let’s not act like that was not good defense, it was great defense,” Kelvin Sampson, head coach of the Houston Cougars said. “It was just better offense. Those were ridiculously hard shots so give him credit, he was making them.”
After leading the Cougars 37-33 after the first half, the tide began to turn. Houston opened the half on a 13-0 run within the first four and a half minutes, giving the Cougars a 46-37 lead over the Owls. The Owls were able to get on the board in the second half on the next possession, as Zack Hicks got his own offensive rebound and made a tip shot to cut Houston’s lead to seven.
Houston changed its defense in the second half, often double-teaming Temple’s ball handlers at midcourt, pressuring the Owls in half court with active hands, and playing at the “line of scrimmage,” according to Sampson. Houston’s Jamal Shead was a significant part in this adjustment, as he tallied three steals in the second half, all of which led to points on the other end for Houston through fast breaks.
Defense has been Houston’s bread and butter all season. Going into the game, Houston was ranked third in the country in opponent’s points per game at 55.2.
“The biggest difference [between both halves] was our defense,” Sampson said. “We just trusted our system in the second half, just a couple tweaks here and there.”
Statistically, Temple struggled after the first half, ultimately failing to secure a season sweep over Houston and a second upset within 14 days.
In the second half, Temple shot 7 of 24 from the field, or 29 percent. Houston also made it hard for Temple to get a shot off from beyond the arc. When the Owls were able to shoot from long distance, they shot 3 for 10 in the second half. Overall, Temple finished 20 for 51 from the field (39 percent), and 12 for 27 from behind the three-point line (44.4 percent). Houston’s ability to protect the basketball for the entire game also stood out, as the Cougars finished with an impressive eight turnovers, while the Owls more than doubled those turnovers at 17.
While there were moments in the second half in which Temple was able to rally for several offensive possessions in a row, it seemed as if Houston always had an immediate answer on the other end.
“Basketball is about stops and I feel like we did not get stops when they went on their run,” Battle said. “Even when we started scoring, we still did not get stops.”
The Owls had their hands full down low against Houston, as freshman phenom Jarace Walker proved to be a problem for the Temple front-court for the 36 minutes he tallied. Walker scored 23 points on 8 for 12 shooting, but what set him apart was his three-point shooting. The 6’8, 240 pounder was able to pick apart Temple’s defense through spacing as he made four of his five three-point shots.
“We felt like if we could keep our defense in front of him, we could give ourselves a pretty good shot,” Mckie said. “He had it going on and gave those guys life.”
Battle summed up the second half woes simply.
“Turnovers,” Battle said. “We’ll be back in the gym tomorrow and figure it out. We will be alright.”
A second win against Houston would have been a strong push for the Owls in their pursuit to play in the NCAA tournament in March. The loss snaps a four-game win streak for the Owls, as they move to 14-10 on the season and 8-3 in AAC play.
What seems most disappointing for the Owls is the missed opportunity to collect a second win against a top-three ranked Cougars team, after Temple won two weeks ago in Houston when they were ranked first in the country.
“I think they are a good team but I feel like we are just as good,” Battle said. “If not better.”
The Owls have a few days off before they travel to Dallas to play Southern Methodist University on Feb. 12. SMU has struggled this season with an 8-16 record and 3-8 in AAC play, good for second to last in the conference. Historically, the Owls have not fared well when playing SMU in Dallas, as they are 1-4 in such road games since 2016.
Looking ahead, after recording their third loss in conference play and 10th on the season, the Owls are running out of time to put together a good enough resume to find themselves dancing in March. The Owls have yet to face Memphis, Cincinnati, and Tulane, all teams that are currently in the top 5 of the AAC.