Temple Owls

Clutch defense, record FTs give Temple win in long-awaited home opener

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Clutch defense, record FTs give Temple win in long-awaited home opener

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Obi Enechionyia was tired of seeing Wisconsin stud forward Ethan Happ get easy buckets in the paint and dominate the glass.

So Enechionyia took over the defensive assignment on Happ as head coach Fran Dunphy decided to switch up his lineup. Dunphy put four guards and Enechionyia out on the floor. The adjustment changed the complexion of the game.

Enechionyia’s two blocks on Happ in the final two minutes and Shizz Alston Jr.’s four clutch free throws were what the Owls needed to secure a 59-55 victory over the Wisconsin Badgers on Wednesday night (see observations).

This was a good way to rebound defensively for Temple, especially after a performance last Sunday against George Washington when the Owls allowed the Colonials to shoot 60 percent from the floor in a 71-67 loss. 

In the long-awaited home opener for Temple, Wisconsin shot just 41 percent from the field and made only 5 of 20 three-point attempts.

“I would say this was one of our better defensive performances,” Enechionyia said. “We really focused on that this week after the George Washington loss. We knew we had to step up on that end and stop guys, which we didn’t do on Sunday. [Better defense] was the emphasis all week and it worked tonight.”

The biggest concern for the Owls on the defensive end was trying to figure out how to guard the 6-10 Badgers forward.

Happ, a third-team All-American in 2016-17, had his way on the glass and in the paint for the majority of the game as he ended up scoring 23 points and grabbing six rebounds. He was the only player in double figures for Wisconsin and the guy the Badgers looked to for production in crunch time.

“Ethan Happ is a pretty good player as we all know,” Enechionyia said. “I was playing the five, so I had to guard him and did what I could to stay straight up and contest every shot to the best of my ability. He’s a tough guard and we were able to finish out well.”

Enechionyia, who added 11 points and seven rebounds, had the final say in the matchup. In total, he blocked four shots and made Happ earn every bucket late in the second half. His defensive presence sparked great energy and helped quiet an unexpectedly large Wisconsin fan presence.

“In my eyes, I feel like Obi is just as good as and even better than Happ,” Alston said. “I feel like Obi can be an All-American also and I feel like Obi showed it down the stretch. He made some great plays for us and he blocked a couple of shots. Obi showed his worth down the stretch.”

Record-setting Alston clutch at the charity stripe
Ever since he was a kid, Alston idolized Temple great Lynn Greer.

On Wednesday night, Greer was in attendance for Temple’s home opener as he watched Alston break one of his Temple records.

By making all six of his free throws against Wisconsin, Alston surpassed Greer for the most consecutive free throws made in Temple history with 52. Greer’s mark was 49 straight set in March 2001.

“Getting that record means a lot,” Alston said. “I looked up to Lynn growing up and was at almost every one of his home games when he played here, so it means a lot to me. It means a lot to get the record while he was here.”

Temple has always been in Alston’s blood. His father, Levan Alston Sr., played for the Owls in the mid-1990s.

While it doesn’t seem like it, this was a redemption story for Alston. Alston, who finished with a team-high 22 points, air-balled a wide-open three-pointer with 27 seconds left in the game and the Owls up two. This gave the Badgers one last chance to tie the game, which resulted in a missed three by Kobe King.

“I was a little too wide open on that shot,” Alston said. “I’ve got to get in a little better shape, too. Wisconsin grinds it out, so I was tired and I didn’t get my legs under me on that shot. I just knew I had to make up for that and not let my teammates down.”

Alston picked himself up and sealed the game with those four clutch free throws.

It’s a good thing for the Owls that he was the one at the stripe. Outside of Alston, the Owls shot 2 for 9 from the line, something Dunphy said can’t happen if you want to win games late.

“Shizz has that part of the game down pretty good,” Dunphy said. “I was actually disappointed he didn’t get fouled so that we didn’t have to throw the ball in bounds. You feel pretty confident as he gets to the line and I’m sure he does as well.”

Temple's NCAA tourney hopes take a crushing blow

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Temple's NCAA tourney hopes take a crushing blow

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Whether it was simply coachspeak or the dawning realization that his team now has only one entry point into the NCAA Tournament, Fran Dunphy made a short but forceful declaration following Temple’s 80-59 loss to Houston on Sunday.

“We’ve got to win every game we play from here on in,” the Owls head coach said. “That’s the only thing we can do.”

Indeed, at this point, anything short of a perfect run through the American Athletic Conference tournament — which begins on March 8th following the Owls’ final three regular-season games — will likely relegate Temple to the NIT or worse.

The Cougars (21-5, 11-3 American) made sure of that by completely dominating the Owls (15-12 7-8) on their home court to suck the life out of the Liacouras Center — and Temple’s fading NCAA hopes.

“We never let them breathe,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. 

Houston has now won five straight to join nationally ranked Wichita State and Cincinnati atop the conference, making it increasingly likely that only those three squads will represent the American at the Big Dance. 

Temple, despite a conference record hovering around .500, had been making a nice push to join the party thanks to a potent strength of schedule, a couple of impressive November non-conference wins over Auburn and Clemson, and a recent five-game winning streak that included an overtime upset of Wichita State.

But after losing to the Shockers in a rematch on Thursday, the Owls likely needed to win out and then win at least a couple of more games in the AAC tournament to have a realistic shot of an at-large NCAA berth.

Houston ruined that by scoring the game’s first 15 points and never taking its foot off the gas from there en route to Sunday’s lopsided win.

“I think we came out really flat,” said Nate Pierre-Louis, who led the Owls with 13 points after watching the poor start from the bench. “I think we came out underestimating them. And they came out guns blazing, making everything. If we want to push forward, we can’t start out like that at all.”

Dunphy, who could be feeling some heat if Temple misses the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in five years, had a hard time explaining what went wrong. But he didn’t make excuses, whether it was the team having trouble with its charter flight leaving Wichita (“You figure it out, suck it up and do a better job”) or bouncing back in general from an emotionally draining game there (“[Houston] had a great win at home against Cincinnati, so they were probably more susceptible to a letdown than we were”).

He also didn’t hide from the fact that there wasn’t enough effort from his players.

“We were a step slow all day long,” Dunphy said. “We had decent rest, we worked hard enough, [assistant coach] Chris Clark had us very well prepared for the x-and-o piece. We were just slow all day.”

In no way was that more magnified than in Houston’s 53-22 rebounding advantage, including a 17-5 edge on the offensive end. The Cougars' 53 rebounds matched a Liacouras Center record.

When asked about that, Sampson pointed out that he recently learned his team was among the shortest in the nation. Clearly, though, their hunger makes up for that fact.

“I guess we’re short but it never crossed my mind that it mattered,” the Houston coach said. “What’s that old saying? If size were important, what happened to the dinosaurs?”

Dunphy had a less philosophical (and probably more scientifically accurate) approach to the rebounding discrepancy.

“We were just not disciplined enough on the rebounding side,” the Temple coach said. “They played very well, and obviously we didn’t play very well at all.”

Sadly for Temple fans, the Owls have had a few games this year when they didn’t play well. They’ve also had games where they’ve looked like world-beaters, making this a particularly maddening season.

So whether the Owls close the regular season strong and make a run in the conference tournament or crash out in the first round is anyone’s guess, really. But even after Sunday’s brutal loss, sophomore Quinton Rose forecasted some optimism as the up-and-down 2017-18 campaign winds down.

“I think we’re at our best when we have our backs against the wall,” said Rose, who scored 13 on Sunday. “So I have no doubt we can make a good run."

Temple flops in biggest game of season

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Temple flops in biggest game of season

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In its biggest game of the season, Temple had its biggest flop.

With their NCAA Tournament at-large hopes dangling over a precipice, the Owls were smoked by visiting Houston, 80-59, on Sunday at the Liacouras Center.

Quinton Rose and Nate Pierre-Louis scored 13 points apiece for Temple (15-12, 7-8 American), which had won seven of its last nine coming in with the only losses in that stretch to nationally ranked teams (Wichita State, Cincinnati) on the road.

Corey Davis Jr. had a game-high 20 points for Houston (21-5, 11-3), which has now won five straight, including a massive win over No. 5 Cincinnati on Thursday, and is challenging the Bearcats and Shockers for the league title.

• It sounds cliché but Houston just seemed to want it more, outhustling Temple to loose balls and dominating on the glass by a ridiculous 53-22 margin. Not surprisingly, there were smatterings of boos from Temple fans when the final horn sounded.

• Considering the urgency of the game, Temple was very flat from the start with Houston’s Davis hitting two tough three-pointers to spark an 8-0 start for the visitors.

• The Cougars built their lead to 15-0 as Temple fans, standing until the Owls scored their first basket, grew impatient and implored head coach Fran Dunphy to change the lineup.

• Finally, Temple got on the scoreboard when Obi Enechionyia threw down a big dunk with 13:36 left in the first half. But fittingly, Davis hit a jumper just moments later and the red-hot Cougars kept their foot on the gas to increase their lead to 34-11 with 7:30 left.

• Houston led by a staggering 24 points at the final media timeout of the first half and took a 21-point lead into halftime after an Enechionyia three-pointer in the final seconds.

• Temple shot 31 percent in the first half, and it seemed even uglier with several of the Owls’ shots missing the rim entirely.

• The biggest first-half difference was rebounding as Houston held a 31-9 advantage and an 11-1 edge on the offensive boards. On one especially excruciating possession for Temple, Houston got a couple of offensive rebounds before Davis drilled a three right in front of the Temple bench.

• With Temple showing a little more life to start the second half, the Cougars promptly sucked it back out of them with star senior Rob Gray hitting a big three to put them up 47-24 with 16 minutes left.

• With 13 minutes left, the Cougars had doubled up Temple’s score (54-27), and then went ahead 59-27 on Davis’ sixth three-pointer of the game. Temple fans had very little cheer for from there. Houston’s a good team but it’s not easy to explain how the surging Owls could lose a game this badly to anyone at home.

• Houston actually had far more turnovers than Temple, 17-10.

• Temple lost at Houston, 76-73, back in December, and is now 2-7 all-time vs. the Cougars, including a 1-4 mark in Philadelphia.

• Houston is chasing just its second NCAA Tournament berth since 1992 and its first since 2010. The Owls, meanwhile, are in danger of missing two straight Big Dances for just the second time since Fran Dunphy took over in 2006. Thanks in large part to a great strength of schedule and their recent hot streak, the Owls were on Joe Lunardi’s “Next Four Out” in ESPN’s bracketology but this loss — and a sub-.500 conference mark — will certainly drop them even further off the bubble.

• The best celebration of the day came in honor of Hooter the Owl’s birthday, with mascots from around the city coming to the Liacouras Center to pay their respects. But those vibes didn’t extend to the game as Temple dropped to 12-1 all-time on its mascot’s birthday.

• Temple plays its final home game next Sunday vs. UCF before closing the regular season with road games at UConn and Tulsa. But even if they win out, the Owls still likely need to win the American Athletic Conference tournament to get into the NCAAs.