By CHASE SENIOR
MEMPHIS- Temple went down the way it started and played the entire season: fighting until the clock read 00:00.
It took two overtimes as the Owls lost in heartbreaking fashion to Central Florida, 94-90, but the grit and determination was evident from start to finish.
“I’m proud of their effort,” coach Fran Dunphy said after the game. “There was never any quit in them. I thought their attitude through a challenging and trying season was very good. Was there frustration and disappointment on occasion, yeah, there sure was. But I thought they fought through it as well as you could possibly do,” he added.
After not playing in the teams’ previous matchup on March 4, Isaiah Sykes was on the floor for Central Florida and was the difference, as the senior guard poured in a career high 34 points for the Knights on 13-of-23 shooting.
“The difference was 36 points, which was very important,” Central Florida coach Donnie Jones said. “[Isaiah] played very well tonight and there was a lot of great efforts on our team tonight. Obviously having him, he’s been a focal point in our offense in so many ways, versatile, you can see we use him in many different situations we play him at the point and we play “out” of him. So, not having him there is an adjustment when you have one of your best players not playing in any circumstance.”
Temple and UCF went punch for punch the entire game and the Owls had some momentum as the first half closed.
Junior point guard Will Cummings let the clock bleed and drove into the lane for a deuce, but Sykes returned the favor by banking in a 3-pointer at the buzzer, regaining momentum for the Knights heading into the break.
UCF kicked off the second half on a 12 to 5 run, forcing Dunphy to call a timeout, but behind Cummings and sophomore guard Quenton DeCosey, the Owls climbed back to make it a ballgame.
With Temple up 76-75 with 40 seconds left in the second half, Sykes hit one-of-two free throws to knot it up. After Cummings took a bad shot on the Owls’ next possession, Sykes spun to his left while being defended well by Josh Brown and nailed a deep two at the buzzer. The call would be reversed after the officials reviewed the play.
Again, Temple and UCF traded baskets, but with a two-point lead and the ball, Sykes had his pocket picked by Cummings, who laid it up at the other end to tie it at 82. Sykes would have a shot at pay back, but couldn’t get a clean look while being defended by Dalton Pepper.
Free throw shooting killed Temple throughout the duration of the night and it caught up to the Owls in the second overtime and the Knights took full advantage.
Temple shot 13-for-26 from the charity stripe and though UCF was not much better (19-32) the Knights got defensive stops late and capitalized.
Dunphy went with the same rotation of Cummings, Brown, Pepper, DeCosey and Anthony Lee for 20 plus minutes to end the game. Depth was an issue all season long and Temple wore down while giving its all.
“Once we got late in the game typically that’s what you would do because it’s so tight and every possession is so critical and we stayed with that lineup throughout the overtimes as well,” Dunphy said.
The Owls had one last chance of a miracle, when DeCosey splashed a triple with 6 seconds left to make it a 91-90 game. Temple would then foul Calvin Newell, who hit both free throws. Pepper was hacked on the proceeding possession with the Owls trailing by four and missed both free throws with three seconds left to put the game out of reach.
Despite it being Temple’s worst season in program history, Dunphy and his players believe the future is bright. The entire team will next year with the exception of Pepper, and transfers, Jaylen Bond, Devin Coleman and possibly Jesse Morgan will join the program.
We are going to use this stuff that we learned from this year,” Cummings said. Sometimes we struggled just a bit on and get better as a group. We have [DeCosey] right here, he’s coming back next year, so we’re going to hit him with some stuff some more and we have guys that didn’t get a chance to play this year that were sitting out, so we’re going to add all those guys to the team and all those guys on the team right now that contributed this season. We’re going to get better and start working when we get back to campus,” Cummings added.
Still, Temple will have to reconstruct what was one of the worst defenses in the nation.
“Yeah, we have talked about it certainly as a team and I have mentioned many times that it’s the one thing that I think we need to spend so much time on it in the offseason and get to better spots,” Dunphy said. “I don’t know that it’s an effort thing, I think it’s an anticipation things and we need to be better at it. We need a lot of work on our defensive play. We actually did a better job today than we have been doing in terms of shooting percentages and those kinds of things.”
DeCosey scored a career high 28 points, but did not record a basket until he connected on the 3-pointer late in the second overtime.
Cummings has electric again, scoring 25 points and dishing out nine assists. He finished the season averaging 20.3 points per game over his last six contests.
With his two treys, Pepper knocked down at least one 3-pointer in every game this season. His career comes to a close with the loss.
Brown played 33 minutes in the loss. The third most of any game this season.