Young backcourt shows flashes in Owls season-opening win over NJIT

Photo courtesy of Temple Athletics

Redshirt-freshman Damian Dunn pulled up to the elbow less than fifteen seconds into the game and rattled home the first basket of the new season. It was the kind of shot that elicits a sort of teeth gritting because it felt good but you weren’t quite sure. Early in the shot clock, it didn’t land cleanly in the net yet it went in anyways. 

In a way, it was the perfect way to begin an imperfect game for the backcourt. The end result was good and it most certainly got the job done, but it wasn’t that easy the entire way. 

Nonetheless, Dunn and freshman Jeremiah Williams played above their age bracket as the two guards helped the Owls knock off the NJIT Highlanders 72-60 in Saturday’s season opener at the Liacouras Center. 

“There was no surprise on my side at how they performed out there,” McKie said of his starting backcourt. “I put a lot on their plate for their first game and I’m going to continue to demand more out of those guys.” 

Dunn particularly flashed on the offensive end, finishing with a team-high 18 points and racking up five assists. However, he did turn the ball over four times and got a little chippy at the end of the game. 

Regardless, the scoring output was impressive, including a 10-of-13 finish from the free throw line as the 6-5 guard drew contact consistently throughout the game. Following the game, Dunn recognized that as just a part of his style and something that the Owls should expect to see from him going forward.

“Getting to the line thirteen times, that’s what he does,” McKie said. “He’s a physical kid, he can get to his spots and score the ball.”

It was the type of up and down play one would expect from a player who has seen just 18 minutes of regular season game action since his high school career ended over 20 months ago. The layoff didn’t seem to bother his motor as he played in a team-high 37 minutes on the floor. 

“It felt good just to be able to play basketball,” Dunn said postgame. “Really just happy and reminiscing a little bit about how much I miss the game and being able to get up and down the floor again.”

Elsewhere, the biggest impact from Jeremiah Williams appeared in the other team’s boxscore. NJIT senior guard Zach Cooks came into this game off of one of the best scoring seasons in the program’s history, averaging 19.7 points per game. Williams was tasked with following him around, providing what could have been a “welcome to college basketball” moment for the true freshman.

Instead, the lengthy 6-5 guard from Chicago was all over Cooks, keeping him very much in check for the majority of the game. Eight of Cooks’ eighteen came with Williams off the floor and the Highlanders’ leading scorer finished the game shooting 6-of-23 from the field.

On the other hand, Williams filled up the stat sheet. He poured in 11 points, four rebounds, four assists, two blocks and two steals. There was a rough stretch of shooting in the second half, but overall he looked the part. 

“We’ve thrown a lot at Jeremiah Williams the last two weeks,” McKie said. “Just trying to get him to understand how to run a team and I thought he played with tremendous poise out there. (He) got us into what we wanted to do out there.”

The pair wasted no time in the first start of their careers as the Owls rallied to a 14-2 lead in the first five minutes of game action. Most importantly in that stretch, they kept the ball moving, which was a huge sticking point for McKie going into the season. 

Nine of Temple’s first 10 buckets were assisted on and the team went to half with assists on 10 of its 13 baskets. Williams and Dunn were responsible for half of those assists. The second half was not the same story as McKie said postgame that the team started taking one too many dribbles and didn’t share it as they had earlier in the game. 

Luckily, that hot start for the Owls was enough to buoy them through the difficult times, such as an 11-0 stretch from the Highlanders in the second half. Williams and Dunn both finished +13 in the win and played well as a tandem, something McKie will need to consider as he shuffles the deck once his backcourt is fully healthy. 

“We have a good relationship off the court and we were able to transition that on the court today,” Dunn said of Williams. “He had a very solid game today and made some smart decisions down the stretch.”

As far as wins go, NJIT is not anything to write home about, but the young guards’ flashiness gave Owls’ fans something to get excited about for the future. Mark it up as a win for Temple and as a true starting point for the talented yet inexperienced tandem.

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