MEMPHIS, Tenn. – As the losses piled up – especially the eight in January and seven more in February – it would have been easy for the Owls to throw in the towels. But they hung in there for coach Fran Dunphy, even as injuries added to the misery.
They came to Memphis as the eighth seed in the 10-team inaugural American Athletic Conference Tournament and exited after a hard-fought 94-90 loss to Central Florida in double overtime of last night’s first round.
Sophomore Quenton DeCosey had a career-high 28 points to lead Temple. Junior Will Cummings chipped in 25 for the Owls.
Central Florida’s Isaiah Sykes, who missed the March 4 overtime loss at Temple, showed why he was a second-team all-conference selection. He led all scorers with 36 points and nearly won it in regulation, but his shot came just a hair after the buzzer sounded.
Sykes did bank home a three-pointer from 29 feet at the halftime buzzer. Dunphy wanted his players to prevent Sykes from catching the ball on the run, which didn’t happen. He flung his jacket in disgust at the mental lapse. In the locker room, Dalton Pepper shouldered the blame.
“If he’s catching the ball going toward his basket, that’s what we would have wanted,” Dunphy said.
Sykes (13-for-23 shooting) also had a five-point possession where he hit a three, was fouled, missed the free throw and then scored again when UCF got the rebound.
In a game that was so tight, every point was critical.
Cummings rescued the Owls in the first overtime with a dunk after Sykes was bumped by a teammate as he dribbled with 18 seconds left and a chance to ice the game.
The defeat closes the book on Temple’s 9-22 season, the most losses in school history and the most in Dunphy’s 25-year coaching career.
Injuries had a lot to do with the Owls’ difficulties this season, so did the upgrade in competition and the frequent lapses in defense. Temple played the 11th hardest schedule in the country (out of 351 teams) and five AAC rivals are ranked in this week’s Top 25.
Two January games against nationally ranked Cincinnati were particularly telling.
In the first meeting, Temple dressed eight players and still had the lead with 7 minutes to go before falling. Two weeks later, they erased a 19-point second-half deficit to the Bearcats before losing by four. In the last game of the regular season, Temple overcame an 18-point disadvantage to South Florida and finally pulled one out.
“There was never any quit in them,” Dunphy said. “Their attitude during a very trying and challenging season was very good. Was there frustration and disappointment on occasion? Yeah, there sure was. But I thought they fought through it.”
The most disappointing development of the season was Temple’s either reluctance or inability to play the stout defense that has allowed Dunphy to get many of his 477 coaching wins. The 77.6 points allowed (entering last night) was 324th in the nation and the most ever under Dunphy at Temple. Regulation last night was tied 76-76.
“We need to spend so much time on [defense] in the offseason. We need to get to better spots,” Dunphy said. “I don’t think it’s an effort thing. I think it’s an anticipation thing, and we need to be better at it. We need a lot of work on our defensive play.”
Pepper (14 points, seven assists) is the Owls’ only senior. The cavalry for 2014-15 includes incoming freshman Obi Enechionyia and transfers Jaylen Bond from Texas, Jesse Morgan from Massachusetts and Devin Coleman from Clemson.
Bond, a Plymouth-Whitemarsh product, averaged 3.1 points in 54 games for the Longhorns. Morgan was averaging 13.4 points when he suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2013, and Coleman averaged 3.5 points in his only season for Clemson.
Swingman Daniel Dingle, the Owls’ top reserve before suffering a season-ending knee injury in late December, will be back for his junior season, as well.
“We’re gonna use this experience this year to get better as a group,” said Cummings, who averaged 22.5 points over the final six games. “We’re going to add guys and with the guys who contributed this season; we’re going to get better. We’re going to start working as soon as we get back to campus.”
On Twitter: @edbarkowitz