Rich Flanagan (@richflanagan33)
PHILADELPHIA—Aaron McKie had been waiting for his team to finally turn the corner and close the gap. The Temple head coach sensed a shift was coming and the Owls would finally put away a team that advanced to the Final Four last season.
Nick Jourdain (above) set a new career high with 12 points. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Jahlil White nailed a three-pointer to cut the Owls’ deficit to three with 5:58 remaining in the game. Temple would be in a great position if it could get to the under-four media timeout like this. But in what was a theme against No. 12 Houston, Fabian White Jr. corralled a miss and put it back in to push the lead to five. White scored 15 points and accounted for eight of the Cougars’ 22 offensive rebounds in a 66-61 victory at the Liacouras Center on Sunday night.
While it may have been one of the Owls more impressive performances this season when considering it hung with a top-15 team, McKie’s side missed out on a huge opportunity.
“I’ll take the effort but it’s still a loss,” McKie said. “It’s something we can grow from because they’re certainly one of the better teams in the country. We wanted to make a statement and we didn’t make the statement that I wanted the guys to make.”
After trailing by as many as 16 in the first half, Temple (7-6, 0-2 American Athletic Conference) still had a chance late. Nick Jourdain, who poured in a career-high 12 points, drilled a three from the top of the key to make it 59-57 with 3:31 left to play. The Cougars answered with a trey of their own as Ramon Walker Jr. knocked one down from the corner and the Owls never got any closer. On the ensuing possession, Damian Dunn drove into a double team with 24.4 seconds remaining and was stripped to halt any hope of a last-ditch effort.
In their first game in 11 days, the Owls came out flat as the Cougars (12-2, 1-0) ran out to an 18-5 lead six minutes in without their top two scorers in Marcus Sasser (17.7 points per game) and Tramon Mack (10.1), who both suffered season-ending injuries in the span of 10 days. Sasser was the second-leading scorer on last year’s Final Four team, but even without him, Houston controlled the glass throughout.
Damian Dunn (above) led the Owls with 14 points. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
With the Owls also missing a player, sixth man Tai Strickland (8.2 ppg), Jourdain stepped up.
Early on, he converted a putback inside, then, on the following possession, Jeremiah Williams hit a three-pointer from the wing to make it 24-20 at the 7:12 mark of the opening half. White (14 rebounds) hit a floater from the left of the lane to start a 12-0 Houston run that was capped by a thunderous slam from J’Wan Roberts off another offensive board.
Being short-handed, Houston wanted to attack the glass and they did, time and again.
“They did a good job of getting second chances at the rim,” Dunn said. “That’s what they’re best at doing is getting second chances and getting to the offensive glass. Later in the game, they wore us out by getting to the glass and getting second chances as well as extra possessions.”
After taking an 11-point advantage into the locker room at halftime, Houston struggled to contain Dunn and the Owls. The 6-foot-5 redshirt freshman, who finished with 14 points, made one of two free throws to start the half, then sank a long three-pointer from the wing two possessions later to cut the deficit to 40-35. A layup by Williams cut Houston’s lead to one with 15:30 remaining in the game. Jamal Shead (14 points) hit a double-clutch jumper in the lane to push the lead back to three.
Freshman Zach Hicks, coming off a school-record 10 three-pointers against Delaware State, hit three treys, one coming with 9:14 left to play and pulling Temple within six. On the next possession, Snead missed a jumper, but Reggie Chaney pulled down the offensive board and was fouled, continuing the trend. He sank both free throws, then Walker intercepted a pass by Dunn and took it the other way for a dunk and the Houston lead grew to 10.
A season ago, the Owls fell to the Cougars by 17 points, so, while this may be seen as an improvement, McKie was frustrated that the outcome came down to things they could control, particularly on the backboard.
“Our issues came on the offensive and defensive rebounding part when we gave those guys second-chance opportunities and we got ourselves in foul trouble,” McKie said. “If we clean that stuff up, it could have potentially been a different outcome.”