Written By Tom Hanslin @tomhanslin
PHILADELPHIA–The Liacouras Center was rocking Saturday afternoon, as the Temple Owls hosted the defending national champion Connecticut Huskies in the final game of regular season play. The sold out crowd sparked stellar performances from guards Jesse Morgan and Will Cummings, leading to an impressive Owls’ victory over the Huskies 75-63. The Owls’ shining star was Cummings, who drilled seven of seventeen from the field, tallying 23 points and 5 assists in his final game on Broad Street.
Prior to the tipoff, Temple recognized four seniors on the roster for the Owls’ annual “Senior Day”, two of which included senior guard Nick Pendergast and forward Jimmy McDonnell. Cummings and Morgan were the other two congratulated, and their star power in the back court solidified a much needed victory heading into the American Athletic Conference Tournament this upcoming week.
“We just had to be aggressive and luckily some of the calls went our way,” said Cummings. “It was gut check time, and we really wanted to come out and make a statement and play our game.”
Both the Owls and Huskies began the first half on an offensive surge, as Connecticut guard Ryan Boatright drained four buckets from behind the arc in the first twenty minutes, tallying a total of 21 points by halftime. With thirteen and a half minutes remaining in the period, the Owls managed to deliver a 7-0 run in under three minutes, but the Huskies immediately responded with 10-0 run of their own, making the score 18-16 in favor of Connecticut midway through the first half. Temple lacked a paint presence early, but success in transition lead to 13 points off of Connecticut turnovers. The first half ended in a shootout with the Huskies on top 37-32, forcing the Owls to make defensive adjustments heading in to the second half. In order to enhance pressure on the Huskies’ guards, Jesse Morgan volunteered to take on Boatright, and Morgan’s excellence on the defensive end eliminated Boatright’s contributions near the basket.
“I was able to be aggressive and press up,” said Morgan. “It was a total team effort. I played well, I had a groove, and I helped my teammates out.”
The total shutdown of Boatright in the second half allowed the Owls to establish a game in the key and beyond the arc, but the most shocking statistic was Temple’s apparent success at the charity stripe, nailing 25 free throws on 31 total attempts. The Owls outmatched the Huskies 19-9 on second chance opportunities, which also forced Connecticut to commit costly fouls early and consistently. Over ten-thousand fans attended Saturday’s matinee, and the energy from the crowd sparked a late and tremendous rally in favor of the Owls. With the Huskies leading 39-37 with sixteen minutes remaining, Morgan brought home his third of five total three-pointers to put the Owls ahead 40-39. From there, the Owls never surrendered the lead, as junior guard Quenton DeCosey flourished on the boards, leading Temple in rebounds with six along with nine points on offense.
“[DeCosey] is a star too, he does his job like everybody else,” said Cummings. “We don’t say that there are any ‘stars’. We just expect everyone to be strong and aggressive when they get in the game.”
DeCosey’s confidence has been an evident factor in his level of performance in Temple’s last few contests, but with the support of his teammates, DeCosey is beginning to feel the rhythm and stroke, and Coach Dunphy believes Quenton is finally embracing his role on the floor.
“Quenton is starting to zone in, and I’m very happy with the way he has been playing,” Dunphy said.
Temple outscored the Huskies 43-26 in the second half alone, making the Owls’ largest lead sixteen points with a little under two minutes remaining in regulation. After suffering a heartbreaking loss to Memphis on Thursday night, Connecticut was hungry for a victory, but ultimately lacked composure and motivation late, forcing back to back losses on the national defending champions for the fifth time this season. Huskies’ head coach Kevin Ollie was disappointed with his players’ execution in the final stages, and realizes the hopes of defending a national title are almost slim to none.
“It was not the way we wanted to close out the season,” said Ollie. “Our guys never had the poise. Temple did a great job and showed toughness. We need to try to win four straight and get into the Tournament.”
Despite Connecticut’s setback in the record column (currently 17-13), Temple managed to reach a final regular season record of 22-9, the opposite of last year’s abysmal record of 9-22. Senior Will Cummings understands that no wins are given, and every minute of hard work results in a positive product.
“Being here through the struggle last year and just seeing that all of the hard work paid off really makes these type of wins more emotional,” Cummings said. “More importantly, these wins make me more grateful.”
Temple clinched a bye in the American Athletic Conference Tournament after Thursday’s road win at East Carolina, and will pick things up Friday evening at the XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut. The Owls’ first tournament opponent will be determined by the remaining conference teams, but based on seeding, Temple is guaranteed to square off against either Memphis or the hosts, Connecticut, that Friday. The Owls finished with a conference record of 13-5, claiming third place overall in the AAC. Temple’s chances of receiving an NCAA Tournament bid still appear strong, but a difficult road lies ahead for the Owls in the manic month of March.
“We don’t want to change,” said Morgan. “We want to come in with confidence, one game at a time, without putting any more pressure on us than we need to.”
Coach Dunphy won his 499th career game in Division I basketball Saturday, and he insists win number 500 must come next.
“Every team has a distinct personality, and it was shown in the first few games this season,” Dunphy implied. “We’ve had a really solid year, and hopefully good things will happen for this group. Somehow, someway, someplace, hopefully we’ll continue to play basketball.”