By: RICH FOGEL
The challenge was evident coming in as No. 15th Cincinnati came into the Liacouras Center as one of the hottest teams in the country. The Bearcats held off a ferocious comeback attempt by Temple to extend their winning streak to 12. The Owls dismal season continues as they have now lost eight straight; marking their worst stretch since 1982-83 season.
Dalton Pepper was scorching hot in the second half, single handily bringing Temple back from a 17-point deficit, hitting six three-pointers in the half starting at the 12:30 mark, en route to a career high 33 points, 27 of which came in the second half.
“My teammates did a good job of finding me, they kicked it out to me when I was open and I was just feeling it. I felt like anything I was shooting was going to go in,” Pepper said after the game.
“In the second half he was just tremendous,” coach Fran Dunphy said afterwards. “He was a superstar in the second half, obviously propelled us to get back into the game, we were in a little bit of trouble. He was on fire, we should have found him a couple more times in the ladder part of the game. We tried to do some things that we probably should have looked to him first, but he was very impressive,” Dunphy remarked.
Sean Kilpatrick, the American Athletic Conference’s leading scorer (18.6 PPG) led Cincinnati with a season high 29 points. Temple was able to finally contain him, which led to the comeback, as he only had two free throws in the final 13 minutes of the game.
“We didn’t do a good job on him in the first half and the start of the second,” Dunphy said. “He’s a really good player, he lets the game come to him, he forces nothing and I thought toward the latter part of the game we did some good switching on him and denied him the basketball as much as we could, but he’s a winner, he makes winning plays and that’s why he will be a first-team all conference,” Dunphy added.
Cincinnati prides themselves on their stingy defense, coming in; they held their last 27 opponents under 70 points. That streak was snapped on Sunday thanks to Pepper and his hot shooting. However, it was a defensive game early, as Cincinnati was in a 2-3 zone, which Temple could not get inside of, forcing perimeters shots that Temple did not convert very often.
Temple shot only 26.9 percent in the first half, and only managed to put up 26 points. Temple’s five offensive rebounds in the half kept them in for much of the half but two three pointers in a row for Cincinnati with 3:30 left in first half broke the lead open. Cincinnati led by ten at the break, 36-26.
Kilpatrick had 16 first half points and Will Cummings paced the Owls with nine.
Cincinnati started the second half on an 8-2 run, highlighted by an alley-oop from Titus Rubles to Shaquille Thomas that got the mini Cincinnati section in the upper deck on their feet.
The next possession after the alley-oop, Kilpatrick came down and hit a transition three, rattling home his 21st point of the game which gave Cincinnati their largest lead at 17.
Just like the two team’s matchup in Cincinnati 12 days ago, Temple did not go down without a fight.
Pepper single handily kept Temple in the game, converting on seven three point attempts in the second half, hitting on three consecutive three’s starting at the 12:30 mark.
“Every game this year, expect for really last game, I feel like we could have won,” Pepper said. “The way the season’s going, one bounce here or there, we could win, but it felt good that we rallied as a team.”
The Owls defense started to come to life and force some Cincinnati turnovers and they were finally able to contain Kilpatrick. The crowd was getting behind their team as Temple searched for their first conference win in the American.
Quenton DeCosey and Cummings were Pepper’s sidekicks as they combined for 15 second half points.
With a minute left, Temple shrunk Cincinnati’s lead to three points, and a miss from Kilpatrick set the stage for the Owls to tie it. After an offensive rebound from Cummings, he dished it to Pepper who hit a contested three to tie it up at 76, sending the Liacouras Center into an uproar. It was Pepper’s seventh three of the second half.
“They’ve lost a lot of close games, but they continue to play hard, never give up. Their short handed, got guys sitting out for next year. I have a lot of respect for them and that’s why that at no point was I confident the game was over,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said post game.
Cronin for sure knew it wasn’t over when Pepper hit the tying three-pointer, but Cincinnati still had time to win it. They called timeout and with 36.3 seconds left they had the ball with a chance to go back ahead. Kilpatrick took it down to 12 seconds before he made his move and with 7.2 seconds left got fouled, resulting in a one-and-one at the line.
The All-American hit both free throws, giving Cincinnati the two point lead.
After a Cincinnati timeout, Temple drove it down the length of the floor with Cummings. He ran into traffic on his way to the hoop and passed it off to freshman Josh Brown who got his layup blocked at the rim. Pepper never touched the ball the entire possession.
“I didn’t want to get Pepper out into the floor and have them deny him right away,” Dunphy said. “We did not think Will would have that fast a path to the basket, what we were thinking is that if Pep was right on his heels, he could have flipped it back to Pep, that’s what I was hoping was going to happen. 7.2 is a long time, it’s a lot of bounces, we were hoping at some point Pepper was going to wind up with the ball, more because he was trailing the play rather then getting it to him right away forcing them to deny him and double team him.”
Cincinnati barely held on. It is a tough loss for this young bunch as they still remain winless in the American. The amount of close losses this season is mind-boggling; it is now the seventh time they have lost in a six point game or less.
“Their definitely disappointed,” Dunphy said. “I think also there’s a coming of age in a lot of games that we have played, this is another one, will it help us later on? That’s the hope. There’s a lot of growth left in us, and that’s the hope. We have 12 games left, 12 really tough games and the next test comes Wednesday night against a good Rutgers team.”