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November 9, 2013

Pepper's play sparks Temple past Penn

Talent has never been the issue for Dalton Pepper.

Consistency and confidence have been another story altogether.

But in Saturday night's season opener at Penn, when Temple needed someone to stop the bleeding after blowing a 15-point lead, Pepper answered the call in a big way.

The 6-foot-5 senior guard hit the go-ahead layup with 45 seconds remaining, got off the floor for a big defensive rebound with seven seconds to go, iced the game with two free throws and finished with a career-high 19 points in the Owls' 78-73 win over the Quakers before a sold-out Palestra crowd of 8,722 fans.

Temple, which lost five seniors from last year's NCAA Tournament team and was asked approximately 1 million times during the preseason how it would replace them, led Penn by 15 with a little more than 11 minutes to play before finding itself reeling and then trailing the Quakers by a bucket with 1:39 to go courtesy of a 23-6 Penn run, with the last eight points coming from guard Tony Hicks.

But after junior forward Anthony Lee tied the game 19 seconds later and then stole the ball on the ensuing Penn possession, he dished it to Pepper for the go-ahead layup. And when Hicks had a chance to tie the game inside the last 10 seconds and missed, Pepper reached up to swipe the rebound, got fouled and calmly swished both free throws to seal the win.

So what could have been a backbreaking Big 5 collapse for Temple in the season opener instead turned into a gut-check win for a team - and its lone senior - that needed a shot of confidence en route to embarking upon its mission that it can survive without players like Khalif Wyatt, Jake O'Brien and Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson.

Junior point guard Will Cummings, who started 32 of Temple's 34 games last season but was never needed to be the floor leader down the stretch last season (that role was typically reserved for Wyatt), was a difference-maker when it counted, getting 12 of his 18 points in the second half and playing all 20 minutes after halftime. And Lee's 12 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks were big, too.

But Pepper, a first-team all-state player and a former teammate of Lavoy Allen at nearby Pennsbury High School, needed this game, and Temple will need performances like this out of Pepper if it wants to go to the NCAA Tournament for a seventh consecutive year. After two seasons at West Virginia that seemingly diminished his confidence, a transfer to Temple and a sub par junior season that saw him average just 2.9 points and 11.3 minutes per game, it was fair to wonder if Pepper would ever rediscover the mojo that made him one of the more highly regarded high school recruits in America.

Saturday night's performance was a big step in the right direction, but Pepper downplayed the notion that the game was an important moment in his development.

"I think the team needed it a lot just because we took the lead early and then in the second half, we came out first and then they made their run," said Pepper, who shot 6 of 13 from the floor, including 3 of 6 from three-point range. "We showed a lot of poise in the end and just got the win and I thought it was good for the team."

Pepper also grabbed nine of Temple's 49 rebounds and four of the Owls' 20 offensive boards, a big key in the team's 16 second-chance points.

"He did a really good job," Dunphy said of Pepper. "Nobody's rooting for Dalton Pepper more than our coaching staff and his teammates because he's earned this right, and we want him to be the best player he can be."

Pepper scored 10 points in the game's first five minutes, and Temple, despite shooting a modest 35 percent in the first half, took a 42-35 lead into halftime with help from scoring from seven different players, including Pepper's 10 and nine from sophomore guard Quenton DeCosey. The Owls shot 3 of 12 from three-point range but maintained their lead by outrebounding the Quakers by 31-18 in the first 20 minutes and grabbing 13 offensive rebounds.

Temple earned a nine-point lead, its largest of the half, at 42-33, with two free throws by Cummings with 1:36 left in the first half before a Henry Brooks jumper with 32 seconds left before halftime sliced the Owls' lead to seven at the intermission.

Penn sparked its run by mixing in some zone looks on defense, and Temple did not adjust to it well. Instead of attacking the basket, the Owls settled for a lot of perimeter looks and shot a paltry 2 of 13 during the Quakers' run.

"We got out of our offense and didn't really move without the ball," Cummings said. "We kind of started standing around and our shots weren't falling."

No one missed more during that stretch than DeCosey, who came up empty on all six of his shots during Penn's 23-6 run, including a missed layup and four missed three pointers. The 6-5, 180-pound St. Joseph's of Metuchen (NJ) product might end up becoming the heir apparent to previous Temple standout guards like Wyatt, Ramone Moore and Dionte Christmas, and Dunphy did not seem terribly concerned by DeCosey's 4 of 19 shooting performance, which included just 1 of 10 from beyond the arc.

"Before you can make shots, you've got to get shots," Dunphy said of DeCosey, "and I think what he's doing is getting shots. He faded to the right spots. His spacing was good. I'll be honest with you - I wanted him to take some of those shots. Because for us to be a good basketball team, he's going to have to get them and make them, and I'm hoping he learns a lot about the game from his performance tonight. But he did a pretty good job overall, other than not making those shots."

It also might be fair to say that Temple could return to the NCAA Tournament if DeCosey and the team's two other sophomores - forward Daniel Dingle, who came off the bench with freshman forward Mark Williams starting, and center Devontae Watson - can make a similar leap from their freshman to sophomore seasons to the ones made in the past by players like Wyatt, Moore and Christmas have in the past.

Dingle, whom Dunphy said sprained his foot slightly Friday, contributed six points of 2 of 4 shooting and 1 of 2 from three point range to go with four rebounds, three turnovers and two bocks. The 6-11 Watson, who played just 12 minutes last season as a freshman, played 13 Saturday night and chipped in four points on 2 of 5 shooting and five rebounds, including three off the offensive glass.

Things are different now. Not since Juan Fernandez and Allen has Dunphy played freshmen as much as he played Williams and guard Josh Brown (a combined 52 minutes). Last March, Wyatt nearly beat North Carolina State and Indiana in the NCAA Tournament by himself.

This time around, Dunphy doesn't know just yet if he has that cold-blooded, go-to guy, so he'll need everyone - the three sophomores, the two freshmen, his two junior veterans in Lee and Cummings.

And he'll really need Pepper to do what he did Saturday night again and again down the line.

"Now we don't have much of a rest period," Dunphy said. "We have to turn around and play Kent State Monday night and Pep's got to be the same guy Monday - and that will be the big challenge for him."

OwlScoop.com editor John Di Carlo can be reached at jgdicarlo@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @OwlScoop_com or @jdicarlo.

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