Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Coming into Saturday’s Big 5 game against Penn, there were questions abound about what Temple’s offense would look like without Khalif Battle.
The Owls’ high-scoring sophomore came up lame in the second half in Wednesday’s win over La Salle, the news hitting the following day that a broken bone in his left foot had ended his season. Suddenly, Aaron McKie had to worry not just about stopping the Quakers, but how to fill a 21-point gap in his starting lineup, not to mention replace the emergency valve that Battle offered Temple’s offense — and keeping his team positive.
It was an injury that starting guard Damian Dunn called “devastating, to say the least,” adding that “losing someone like Khalif [...] it’s kinda hard to put into words because he’s just so special, man, you know you don’t come around guys like that too often.
“He talks to us all the time, just keep playing, keep winning, and at the end of the day we just do our best to try to do it for him, win it for him, because he’d kill to be out there on the court with us.”
Jake Forrester (above) set a new career best with 21 points in Temple's win over Penn. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Thanks to Dunn and Jake Forrester, Temple’s offense — for one game, at least — didn’t seem to miss a beat. The Owls kept the ball moving and made more than half their shots against the Quakers, leading for all but 16 seconds in a 81-72 win.
They were hot from the outset, as freshman guard Quincy Ademokoya — in the lineup since junior guard Tai Strickland (thigh contusion) also remains sidelined — got his first career college start. The 6-foot-6 wing out of Georgia came out firing, knocking down his first two shots — both 3-pointers — to help the Owls get off on the right foot.
Ademokoya, who finished the game 2-of-8 from deep, played 28 minutes after seeing a total of 16 minutes of action in three appearances over the first seven games.
“He’s a threat to be able to make an open shot, and sometimes when you get in the course of a game and you’re trying to get guys in, things happen and you don’t get a chance to get those guys in,” McKie said. “If you start them, you get an early look and see if he’s comfortable out there, and I thought he got us off to a pretty good start.”
Temple (5-3, 2-0 Big 5) led by double digits for most of the first half and by 12 at the break, getting the advantage as high as 20 midway through the second half before a late Quakers push got them within single digits within the final couple minutes. But that wasn’t enough to snap what’s now a four-game winning streak for the Owls.
“I thought today their offense was so much more fluid, hence harder to guard, and I think all those kids felt they could make plays,” Penn coach Steve Donahue said. “It’s nothing against Battle, it isn’t, [but] you could feel that they were much more connected offensively, they ball moved better, inside out, they made shots, made 3s.”
McKie didn’t quite buy that line, looking at his team’s 28-of-55 (50.9%) performance as the key reason why his team got to 81 points.
“The offense always looks good when you make shots,” the former Sixers guard said. “I watch a lot of basketball […] and when you watch the NBA game, they don’t run plays. They get it to their best players and those guys make shots and everybody thinks it’s this great offense and movement and things like that.
“If they make shots, it looks good, and if not there’s commentary behind it…we made shots today.”
Both Dunn and Forrester set career highs in scoring, but neither of them needed to dominate the ball in order to do so.
Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL
Dunn (above) set a new high in shots made (nine) on just 15 attempts, scoring 27 points, five better than his previous best, set last year. After scoring 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting against La Salle, it’s two straight efficient floor games for a 6-foot-5 guard who shot just 31% overall through the first six games of the year.
“Just being aggressive out of the gate,” he said, “and I think that early intensity kind of helped me, gave me a little bit of confidence just to get into gaps, do my best to exploit their defense, get downhill.”
With Battle on the sidelines, the Owls are going to have to rely more on Dunn, who with about 600 college minutes under his belt is still one of the most experienced players on the roster. The Kinston (N.C.) native, who redshirted the 2019-20 season due to the exact same injury — a broken fifth metatarsal, which required surgery — knows exactly how Battle feels.
“It’s something he’s going to have to keep persevering through,” Dunn said. “With that comes good days, bad days, terrible days, days where you don’t even want to leave the room, days where you don’t want to talk to anyone.
“I know that I’m going to be there for him whenever he wants to talk, if he’s going through it, because I know how it feels. It’s serious, when you’re dealing with something like that, just to be able to know that you have guys that you can talk to, relate to and connect with when you’re going through those tribulations like that, I think it creates comfort for him.”
Forrester, a 6-9 forward out of the Westtown School, has had an up-and-down first three seasons in a Temple uniform since transferring from Indiana, where he started his college career. He averaged 9.3 ppg and 6.4 rpg in 16 games — all starts — as a sophomore, but his production had dropped to just 4.9 ppg and 3.9 rpg through the first seven games of this season.
Going up against a Penn frontcourt that’s without two primary pieces in junior Max Lorca-Lloyd and Nick Spinoso due to injury, Forrester feasted. He was 7-for-11 from the floor and 7-of-8 from the foul line for 21 points to go along with nine rebounds, six on the offensive end, catching a couple alley-oop lobs while also connecting on a few hook shots.
“That was one of our key points in practices and leading up to this game was if they’re going to be in that zone, trying to match up, just attack the glass and take full advantage, got to win the paint,” Forrester said.
Penn had two 20-point scorers of its own in sophomore Jordan Dingle (8-17 FG, 22 points) and senior forward Michael Wang (9-20 FG, 21 points), who came two points shy of a career high he set back on Dec. 4, 2018, exactly three years prior. The 6-10 forward from China, who missed the entire 2019-20 season due to injury and then the following one to COVID, got to double figures for the first time this season and flashed the scoring ability that had Quaker fans excited during his freshman year.
But that wasn’t enough to stop the Quakers (3-8, 0-2 Big 5) from dropping their fourth game in a row and sixth in the last seven. A Wednesday trip to Saint Joseph’s (4-4, 0-1) is next on the slate, before finishing city series play Dec. 11 at La Salle.
“We’ve been through a lot these three weeks, and that group, right now, they’re hurting,” Donahue said. “This is another probably top-130 team, again, on their court, they’re hard games to win, in particular when we’re throwing most guys out there that this is their first year of college basketball.
“I’m pleased with certain things, more focused on how we can get better by Jan. 2, when we play Brown [in the Ivy League opener].”