WRITTEN BY: TOM HANSLIN @tomhanslin
PHILADELPHIA — Whether or not tight-knit, single-digit point victories are deemed constructive challenges, Temple can’t seem to avoid them.
In their 12th non-conference game, the Owls survived by single digits for the fifth time this season, defeating the NJIT Highlanders, 68-63, at the Liacouras Center on Saturday afternoon.
It was Temple’s (8-4) seventh win in the last nine games, and NJIT’s (5-8) fourth straight loss.
Junior forward Obi Enechionyia led Temple with 13 points, but the game’s leading scorer was NJIT’s Damon Lynn, who finished with 25 points on nine made baskets, seven of which came from behind the arc. The 5-foot-11 senior also eclipsed the 2,000 career point mark (2,015).
“These wins have been tough,” said Temple guard Dan Dingle, who had 11 points and two assists. “It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be a war every time we step on the court. We would like to spread the margin, but these close games are helping us grow, mature quickly and learn how to close games no matter what team we play.”
A three-pointer made by Dingle with 5:47 remaining in the second half increased the Owls’ lead to 56-47, but NJIT quickly generated an 11-2 run, knotting the score at 58-58 with three minutes left.
On the ensuing possession, Enechionyia hit a three to make it 61-58, and Shizz Alston followed with two made free throws to make it a five-point game. But with 1:35 left, Lynn drained the last of his seven-made three’s, cutting the Highlanders’ deficit to two.
After a missed shot from Alston, NJIT’s Rob Ukawuba tied the score with a tip-in, but Alston redeemed himself on the next possession with a driving layup to place Temple ahead 65-63 with 0:44 remaining. Following a wide miss from Lynn at the top of the arc, Alston and Alani Moore extended the Owls’ margin to five with three combined free throws.
While close finishes have seemed to be the new-norm, Temple head coach Fran Dunphy isn’t too fond of the nail-biters.
“I’m not expecting (close games), nor do I want it,” Dunphy said. “We’re an interesting group. We’ve found a way to have some success in close games, and we certainly would love to continue to do so. We’re in for a fight and the challenge is absolutely there for us.”
What could have made the game close was the absence of Temple guard Josh Brown, who was sidelined due to soreness, according to Dunphy. The 6-foot-3 senior had played five games in a row after missing the team’s first six while recovering from offseason Achilles tendon surgery.
“We’ve laid out every piece of information that’s out there for him,” said Dunphy in response to the possibility of Brown redshirting. “It’s all going to be up to him and the doctor and the trainer, and I’ll do whatever he wants to do. But it’s the soreness that concerns me.”
As a team, Temple had only six turnovers, three times less than its total of 18 against No. 1 Villanova on Tuesday. Both teams tied in bench points (19-19) and points in the paint (20-20), but NJIT finished 13-of-33 from behind the arc, while the Owls made 7-of-18.
“I thought we had a couple turnovers we just can’t have,” Dunphy said. “Our defense has to improve. We didn’t do a great job on Lynn, but he’s a really tough guy to guard.”
Dingle also believes the Owls’ defensive communication needs to improve by their first conference game against the Cincinnati Bearcats on Dec. 28.
“We’re not the biggest team in the American conference, so I’ve got to a better job of hitting the glass, getting down there with Obi and Ernest (Aflakpui),” Dingle said. “We’re going to be undersized against probably Cincinnati and Memphis, but we’ve got to be the tougher team.”
Temple’s final non-conference game will come on Thursday night against Yale at the Liacouras Center.
If you want to connect with Tom Hanslin, email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @tomhanslin.
AUDIO STORY BY: JONATHAN GINSBURG