Jerome Taylor (@ThatGuy_Rome)
In his first season with the Temple Owls, Damian Dunn’s knack for getting to the free-throw line made him a scoring threat. His ability to get fouled — eight times per 40 minutes, tops in the country according to KenPom — led to him finishing tenth in the American Athletic Conference in scoring (13.5 ppg), second on the team to backcourt companion Khalif Battle.
Damian Dunn (above) averaged 13.5 ppg as a freshman but just 10.3 ppg entering play Wednesday night. (Photo: Nicole Ambruch/CoBL)
This year he’s been trying to continue his ascension, even though there have been bumps along the way. As Battle has taken the next step in his role in his sophomore year, Dunn has struggled out of the gate.
Heading into Wednesday’s game against La Salle, the Kinston (N.C.) native was shooting 31% from the field, and his scoring numbers were down to 10.3 points per game. But head coach Aaron McKie’s confidence in the guard -- still technically a redshirt freshman, thanks to the NCAA's COVID eligibility ruling -- hadn’t wavered.
“Keep firing, don't worry about statistics and numbers,” McKie said he tells his players when they’re in cold spells. “I don't ever want them to blink or lose their confidence with shooting… it’s just taking the right shots and playing the right way”
In Temple’s first Big 5 matchup of the year, Dunn was efficient and effective, scoring 16 points (7-11 FG, 1-3 FT, 1-2 3PT), grabbing six rebounds and picking up four assists in the 73-57 victory over the Explorers.
“Just continuing to stay steady with shots, not turning down looks when they're open, just because things kind of haven't been going your way early,” Dunn said about his mentality coming into Wednesday’s game. “Keep taking open looks when they're there and just keep being as aggressive as I can, and eventually, the ball will find its way in the rim. That’s pretty much been my mindset.”
Dunn started the game strong, ending the first half with nine points (4-6 fg); then the 6-5 guard made his presence felt in the second half when his team needed it.
Dunn’s backcourt mate, Battle, was also scoring at will against the Explorers. But in the second half, right before the under-12 timeout, Battle came up limping and stayed on the baseline. He re-entered the game briefly before heading to the locker room.
Despite missing the stretch run, Battle finished the game with 22 points in 28 minutes. It was the City 6 player of the month’s sixth 20-point outburst in the Owls’ first seven games. McKie was not specific about Battle’s injury, but noted that the sophomore had been having problems with his foot after the game.
Aaron McKie (right) talks to redshirt-freshman guard Damian Dunn (left) during Temple's win over La Salle on Wednesday night at the Liacouras Center. (Photo: Nicole Ambruch/CoBL)
In Battle’s absence, Dunn stepped up immediately, scoring seven straight for the Owls (4-3, 1-0 Big 5) after the timeout to stretch the Owls’ lead to 27 with 8:30 remaining and put the game out of reach.
“That's how we see Damian. Just being able to do that. I feel when [Battle and Dunn] are at the top of their game we'll be difficult to guard, but they're still babies,” Mckie said. “They haven't seen a lot of college… in terms of playing, playing in late-game situations or playing games like these, they haven't seen it. So they're still learning, and I'm learning along with them and trying to position them to be at their best.”
“We already had really separated and established a huge lead, so my mentality was just to keep being aggressive when Khalif went down,” Dunn said. “I felt like I had to step up and step into that role.”
Dunn did most of his damage during his personal run in the middle of the Explorers’ 2-3 zone, knocking down a pull-up jumper, a turnaround jumper in the paint and then completing an and-one to help keep the Explorers at bay.
“I think individually I’m very comfortable playing in the middle of the floor, elbows, free throw line area,” Dunn said. “If I'm catching in the middle and guys are closing the space. I'm able to make plays out of the zone, whether it's a high-low with Jake [Forrester]... and I think the next step for me is just continuing to make my guys better.”
“Those guys got some baskets like right in the middle of our zone, which were okay with giving up vs. zone. But those guys are really good mid-range shooters,” La Salle head coach Ashley Howard said. “Temple's young guards, they're really good mid-range shooters. I know they don't shoot great percentages from three, but they're really good in the mid-range. And I think they made a lot of tough twos in the game. You know, you say we'll give up tough, contested twos. Temple makes tough contested twos.”
Temple also got contributions from junior Jake Forrester, who finished with 12 points (6-10 fg) and eight rebounds.
Saying Battle is pivotal to the Owls’ offense is an understatement as he’s again leading the team in scoring this year (21.4 points per game). But if he’s not ready to play on Saturday when the Owls try to extend their winning streak to four against another Big 5 opponent in Penn (3-7, 0-1 Big 5), Dunn is confident the team will be up to the task.
“It's not only on me but our captains; Jeremiah [Williams] and I think we're ready for that,” Dunn said. “It's really like our team identity. We're always with the next man up mentality.”