Temple coach Aaron McKie (above) has experienced some ups and some downs in his first head coaching season at his alma mater. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Aaron Bracy (@Aaron_Bracy)
PHILADELPHIA – Beads of sweat pouring out of his bald head and streaming down his clean-shaven face, first-year Temple coach Aaron McKie reaches for a nearby towel on the scorer’s table. He covers his face with it, runs it back over his damp dome, takes a soothing breath and then calmly refocuses his eyes to the offensive end of the court.
As play returns right in front of him in the first half of Wednesday’s game against nationally ranked Wichita State at the Liacouras Center, Temple is on defense now and McKie quickly and suddenly transforms from the mild-mannered gentleman from a few seconds ago to something quite different.
He snarls, stomps, implores, claps, yells and sweats. Sweats a lot.
The Shockers offensive possession over, McKie reaches again for that towel, swashes away the pesky perspiration and, seemingly, frees himself from all care.
Temple is on offense now. Aaron McKie is serene again.
When the Owls are trying to score, McKie might as well be a visitor to a tea party.
When they are trying to stop the other team, though, he’s like a combatant in Fight Club.
Aaron McKie was a lockdown defender. Always. Sure, he could hit a 3, but his calling card was defense – at Gratz, at Temple and with the 76ers.
McKie’s defense was one-on-one, man-on-man, in your face, this-is-Philly-and-you-ain’t-scoring-on-me defense.
Defense is about attitude. And toughness. That’s Philly. That’s McKie.
And that’s how he wants his Temple teams to play.
The Owls hadn’t been playing that way, though, entering Wednesday’s matchup against No. 16 Wichita State. They had lost three in a row, a 70-44 thumping at Tulsa followed by a pair of home defeats, 78-74 to Houston and 71-65 to Tulane.
Three games. Seventy or more points allowed in each.
That’s not toughness. That’s not Philly. That’s not Aaron McKie.
And it looked like more of the same in the early going on Wednesday.
And then there was McKie calling timeout with 13:12 left in the first half and the Owls down 17-9 and looking completely outclassed. Temple’s coach walked with resolve toward the court, deep in thought, head shaking side to side.
The image on his face, though, told you all about Aaron McKie. There wasn’t dejection, there wasn’t quit. No sir. His jaw was locked, his pupils were full of intensity and his body projection was clear for all to see: This isn’t happening again. Not tonight. Now, it’s time to play some defense!
McKie changes the Owls defensive scheme, going to a 1-2-2 three-quarter court press, with the coach on every Shockers possession, like a chess master but with ferociousness, moving his pieces slightly here or there, arms up, move your feet, slide here, switch there.
Snarling, stomping, imploring, clapping, yelling and sweating. Sweating a lot.
The change slowly starts to happen.
Temple forces a Shockers travel with 11:09 left in the half, and McKie looks pleased.
Owls star Quinton Rose makes a steal with 8:39 to play right in front of his coach, leading to a pair of free throws on the other end. You watch the intensity and pride in McKie’s face and, close your eyes, you can see McKie making that same play for Gratz, or Temple, or the 76ers.
The 1-2-2 press is working. The Owls are closing ground and, more importantly as McKie would explain later, tiring out the Shockers.
There’s 6:45 showing on the clock now and McKie screams in excitement as the Owls force a Shockers air ball.
When the clock hits zero at halftime, the Owls are right there, down 32-26.
Temple comes out after halftime and builds on its defensive performance from the second part of the first half.
McKie is working the towel hard early as the Owls are pressuring the heck out of the Shockers, forcing them into four turnovers and 0-for-4 shooting during a game-changing 11-0 run over the opening 4 minutes, 6 seconds of the second half that sent Temple in front 37-32 with 15:54 left.
If the Owls had a shooter like McKie who can bury 3-pointers, the game would’ve been a blowout from that point. Temple doesn’t have that type of team. Offense doesn’t come easy for the Owls, but they do enough in the final 15:54, helped by getting in the bonus with nearly 11 minutes remaining and some big buckets off the bench by Monty Scott.
But this game, and ultimately McKie’s signature win to this point, is about defense. The Shockers just couldn’t figure out how to consistently score on Temple.
“Our guys followed our game plan to a ‘T’ and we kept them away from their strengths,” McKie said after Temple’s impressive 65-53 triumph, which clinched a 13th consecutive season with an Owls victory over a ranked team. “We wanted to get up the floor and wear those guys out. We wanted those guys to feel us all game long. It’s tiring.
“Our guys were active. We wanted to push their offense out some. We forced them to have to do something different offensively.”
Wichita State finished with a season-low in points while shooting 25.4 percent (19-for-63) from the field, including 14.3 percent (3-for-21) from 3-point range.
“Coach always wants us to be aggressive and pressure the ball,” Scott said. “We do that against every team, but we knew today playing a ranked team we had to be more aggressive than usual. We always have to hang our hat on defense because sometimes our shots aren’t going to fall. I feel like it worked out today.”
Said Rose, “We played with desperation, almost.”
Amazingly, Temple held Shockers leading scorer Erik Stevenson, who entered averaging 14.1 points per contest, scoreless. Stevens missed all eight tries, including five attempts from the arc. And Tyson Etienne, who entered leading the American Athletic Conference with 37 3-pointers, also went without a point while missing seven from the field and three from long range.
That was about attitude. And toughness. That’s Philly. That’s McKie.
“They do a really good job of getting those guys shots and we were well aware of that,” McKie said. “We wanted to use our length and athleticism against those guys, make them put it on the floor and play in a crowd.”
Said Shockers coach Gregg Marshall, “They had a great game plan.”
For the first time all evening, I see a smile from McKie. It’s at the postgame press conference and the question is as follows:
You made a lot of shots but you were known obviously as a lockdown defender in college and the NBA. They say teams take on the personality of their coach. Is this how you want your teams to play?
McKie looks over and grins, his game face gone for an ever-brief moment, as if he really likes the narrative.
“We’re getting there,” McKie, whose team returns to action Saturday at SMU (8 p.m./ESPNU), said. “It takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight. When I look out there, I feel like I’m out there myself. I see it coming. It’s still a work in progress. I just want our guys to be mentally tough, be able to endure. It not only serves them well for basketball, it serves them well for life.”
You think about that quote later and its power, for his team, for you and for anyone reading or hearing it.
The Owls had lost three straight, were getting smacked again in their own building and looked lost – especially on defense.
Like life sometimes, things weren’t going well.
Then what? Get down, give up.
McKie made a switch, went with a 1-2-2 press and the Owls started grinding away.
He was snarling, stomping, imploring, clapping, yelling and sweating. Sweating a lot.
The change didn’t happen right away, but it happened.
It was about attitude. And toughness. That’s Philly. That’s McKie.
As McKie said, it’s a toughness, a mental toughness, he wants his players to have that will serve the Owls well on the court. More than that, it will help when life happens and things aren’t going well.
Yeah man, you think, that can work.
For the Owls, for you, or for anyone else.