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No. 3 Houston enacts revenge on Temple, stops Owls' momentum

02/06/2023, 12:00am EST
By Rich Flanagan

Rich Flanagan (@richflanagan33)

Momentum has dictated Temple’s season in more ways than it would like. On a night where No. 3 Houston came into the Liacouras Center for the second matchup between the two programs with a crowd size that was eerily reminiscent of when the late John Chaney roamed the sideline, the Owls were in a battle not only with the Cougars but also with themselves.

The Owls did exactly what they wanted to do on their home floor in a nationally televised game as leading scorer Khalif Battle sank three of Temple’s nine first-half 3-pointers and scored 11 points in those first 20 minutes. Zach Hicks did what he does best and sank three shots from deep and Damian Dunn made two from downtown as Temple went into the locker room with a four-point advantage and kept the auxiliary crowd engaged in hopes of another upset of the Cougars.

Aaron McKie (above, in November) got one good half from his Owls, but they couldn't sustain against No. 3 Houston. (Photo: Jack Verdeur/CoBL)

The successive 20 minutes were basically Temple’s personal version of Jekyll and Hyde.

Houston went on a 13-0 run to begin the second half and held Temple to five made field goals over the final 9:14 to leave North Philadelphia with an 81-65 victory. The Owls shot a miserable 7-for-24 after halftime following an opening half that saw them shoot 48.1% from the floor.

Head coach Aaron McKie noted that the contrasting style of play of his team between the two halves is the Owls’ season in a nutshell.

“It was something we’ve been fighting all year long,” McKie said. “When the ball is going in for us, like most people when good things are happening, we’re excited and have more energy and effort. When that didn’t happen for us in the second half, guys would drop their heads if they made a mistake or missed a shot. We just couldn’t find a way to get out of our own way.”

Coaching in his 100th career game at his alma mater, McKie left the court with a 50-50 record but was hoping for a similar result as the Owls’ one-point win over then-No. 1 Houston on January 22. 

Temple (14-10, 8-3 American Athletic Conference) only hit eight three-pointers in that matchup and shot an underwhelming 31% from the field, but the Owls’ defense was superb in holding the Cougars top three options in New Freedom native Jarace Walker, Marcus Sasser and Jamal Shead to a combined 11-for-39 shooting. Fittingly, Sunday night was a completely different story.

Walker hit four three-pointers and finished with a game-high 23 points and Sasser scored 13 points and dished out five assists. Walker scored the first bucket of the second half with a floater in the lane then J’Wan Roberts tied the game the next time down. Walker, the 6-foot-8 forward and one of the premiere freshmen in the country, took the ball away from Battle and scored at the other end and Shead, who had 12 points on 4-for-6 shooting, muscled the ball away from Dunn immediately after and found Sasser for an easy layup to make it 43-37 with 17:22 left to play.

For Battle, it was a sequence befitting of the turn in the tide and one that the Owls just couldn’t seem to get away from in front of a crowd that had come in with hopes of seeing a repeat of a result that had transpired two weeks prior.

“It’s really upsetting because we don’t generally get a crowd like that,” Battle said. “You never know when you’re going to get a crowd like that. The guys in the locker room and I take full responsibility, but we still have a lot of games left and we’re in second place.”

Temple is tied with Tulane for second in the conference, but the loss seemed more perplexing after it had just rattled off four consecutive wins coming in. 

Houston (22-2, 10-1), a program with a Final Four and Elite Eight appearance in the last two seasons, didn’t seem phased by the raucous crowd and they silenced them during that early second-half run. Shead put together five straight points capped off with a three-pointer at the 14:30 mark and the Cougars were up 49-39. Battle shot 6-for-12 from the floor for the game and scored 13 after intermission but little production was provided from the rest of the roster.

Dunn was limited to nine points and Hicks only scored two in the second half. Jamille Reynolds – who didn’t play in the first matchup with the Cougars – tallied 11 points and six rebounds, but only five of his points came after halftime. The 6-11 big man converted in the paint and cut the deficit to 52-43 then followed that up with two free throws before Dunn sank a trey and Houston’s lead was down to five with 9:14 remaining.

Cougars head coach Kelvin Sampson saw the fight in McKie’s Owls that led to a win in their first meeting and witnessed that grit once again in front of the Temple faithful.

“When I heard it was a sellout, my first thought was Coach Chaney and how proud he would be of Aaron,” Sampson said. “I know what this looked like when Aaron got here and there’s been steady growth for him…Them beating us at our place was not a fluke. They beat us so give them their due.”

Walker answered Dunn with a three-pointer of his own then Roberts got free down low, and the lead was back at 10 with eight minutes to play. Reggie Chaney finished inside, then Walker stripped Dunn and Sasser finished at the other end to give Houston a 65-51 advantage with 6:18 left to play. The Owls committed 15 turnovers and more excruciatingly, a large majority of them were live ball turnovers and McKie felt that was their undoing.

“We had some uncharacteristic turnovers and that gives teams juice,” McKie said. “They get a pick-six then go and get an easy layup here or hit some free throws there. That’s hard to bounce back from for a team, especially when you’re fighting for points.”

Seeing the crowd unceremoniously head for the exits with more than three minutes remaining harkened back to that Jekyll and Hyde metaphor Temple has been dealing with this season after starting out in such brilliant fashion. Walker opened the scoring with a three-pointer then Hicks subsequently answered. Later in the first half, Hysier Miller (Neumann-Goretti) drilled a trey and Battle hit one from the corner while moving to his left and a 17-13 lead seemed like more with the elation of the crowd. Houston continued to stay within striking distance but Reynolds hit two free throws then Dunn hit a three-pointer and Temple led 34-29 at the 3:30 of the opening half.

With a win over Houston and another over Rutgers combined with losses to Wagner and Maryland-Eastern Shore, Temple can’t seem to decide who it wants to be. Add in a win over Villanova and its new regime, and the Owls are still very much discovering who they are and who they hope to be with the AAC Tournament on the horizon.

Temple returns to action on Wednesday, traveling to Texas to play Southern Methodist (8-16, 3-8).

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