Written by: Drew Bishop
Photo Courtesy of: Temple Athletics
In a season marred with restrictions and delays, the Temple Owls focused on what they could control, the final score, and claimed an impressive 72-60 victory over the NJIT Highlanders.
After a 24-day delay due to COVID-19 shutdowns, the two teams were finally able to compete on the Liacouras Center hardwood.
“I was excited more for them than for myself.” said head coach Aaron McKie. “It was fun to see them against some different competition. They were looking forward to it.”
The Owls certainly came out eager to play, starting the game on a 16-2 run. This was propelled by Jake Forrester scoring six of the Owls’ first 11 points. His offensive presence on the interior opened up the Temple offense, allowing their shooters to get open looks.
On the other side, NJIT was unable to create shots with their half-court offense to begin the game. Their only basket of the first six minutes came from a Zach Cooks breakaway layup. Cooks, coming off a season averaging 20 ppg, was expected to be the spark for the NJIT offense. He did not disappoint, hitting two three-pointers to cut the deficit to 18-10 with 11:54 to play in the 1st. He led the Highlanders with 18 points on 6/23 from the field.
However, even with Cooks, NJIT was no match for Temple’s athleticism and tenacity.
The Owls dominated on the glass, out rebounding the Highlanders 19-8 in the first half. Dre Perry’s wingspan was on display, collecting eight of the 19 rebounds. The senior captain had a stellar day, netting 12 points, and a career-high 14 rebounds.
When asked if this will be a consistent trend in the future, Perry stated: “You’re definitely gonna see rebounding out of me. You’re gonna see a little of everything, doing whatever my team needs to win.”
Aaron McKie utilized the lead to get a look at nearly his full rotation, playing 10 guys 14 minutes into the game. This proved efficient for the Owls as 9/10 players scored in the first half. Senior JP Moorman was the lone scoreless player, but he was active as a passer, collecting three assists. In fact, the other senior captain for the Owls did not attempt a shot until five minutes left in the game, but still ended with 10 points on 3-4 shooting from three-point range.
Heading into the locker room, Temple held a 42-26 lead over NJIT, shooting 48% from the field and 42% from beyond the arc.
Coming out of halftime, the Owls held the lead to a healthy 15+ points, until junior forward Miles Coleman completed a three-point play with 12:21 in the game. This started an 11-0 run that brought the Highlanders to within 8 points with 8:16 to go.
Yet just as in the first half, Temple’s fast-paced offense and athletic defense was too stout for NJIT. A huge contributor to this advantage was Temple’s backcourt, Damian Dunn and Jeremiah Williams, who had played a combined 18 minutes of game action prior to the matchup.
Dunn, who missed last year due to a broken foot suffered in preseason, was the leading scorer for the Owls, going 10-13 from the free-throw line on his way to 18 points. Williams was also impressive, scoring 11 points in 32 minutes on the floor.
When asked about their chemistry, Dunn stated he has an early connection with his backcourt partner.
“I love playing with Jeremiah. We have a pretty close relationship off the court as well, so it translated to the court today. He had a big game.”
Another factor in the result was the Temple defense stifled Cooks in the second half, holding him to 3/14 shooting in the closing 20 minutes. There was no specific player assigned to defend him on the night, but each Owl played physical enough to knock him off his game.
“We all knew he was pretty much their go-to guy,” said Dunn of Temple’s defensive strategy. “We knew he’d be the one to take the majority of their shots, so really just doing our best to keep him in front and make him take tough shots.”
Coach McKie was intent on using the length of his team to defend Cooks, a slasher.
“We knew he was more of a driver than a shooter. I thought Jeremiah and Tai and those guys that were guarding him did a good job of using their size and length over top of him. Once he started to attack the basket we just wanted to put our hands up.” said McKie.
The final stamp of dominance was the freshman Williams’ emphatic block on a Cooks drive with 35 seconds left in the game. It was virtually meaningless with the Owls’ lead up to 14, but it was a microcosm of the performance the entire defense put forward in the season opener.
Now the Owls are set to take a trip to Texas, opening AAC conference play against the Houston Cougars on Tuesday, December 22nd. You can listen in at 8 P.M. on WHIP Radio.