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January 26, 2014

Losing skid continues, Owls fall to No. 15 Bearcats

Considering it is now in the midst of the program's longest losing streak in 37 years, any loss has been a tough loss for Temple's basketball team.

Sunday's 80-76 setback to No. 15 Cincinnati at the Liacouras Center, the Owls' eighth in a row, was of the grueling variety.

With a chance to knock off a top-25 team, get its first win in the American Athletic Conference and simply feel good about itself for a few days, Temple climbed all the way back from a 19-point, second-half deficit when Dalton Pepper, who led Temple with a game-high 33 points, hit his eighth three-pointer of the afternoon to tie the game at 76-76 with 36.9 seconds left.

But as has been the case through much of a season that's likely to leave the Owls locked out of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in seven years, the comeback bid fell short.

Bearcats guard Sean Kilpatrick, who scored 29 points of his own but just two in the last 13 minutes, hit what proved to be the game-winning free throws with 7.2 seconds left on the ensuing possession and set up the Owls' latest heartbreaking sequence.

Out of a Cincinnati timeout, Pepper inbounded the ball to junior point guard Will Cummings, who had plenty of open floor ahead of him and raced the ball toward the top of the key before dishing it to freshman guard Josh Brown. But Brown, who seemed a bit hesitant when he got the pass along the baseline, tried to drive to the rim but got his shot blocked soundly by Bearcats forward Jermaine Sanders.

Two free throws later from Kevin Johnson with a half-second left, the game was officially out of reach.

Temple has had second-half leads in all but two games this season - Sunday's loss and last Saturday's loss to La Salle at the Palestra. The Owls haven't always looked like a 5-13 team, but there's that old Bill Parcels adage that says you are what your record says you are.

And right now, Temple is a short-handed team that has lost eight games in a row, dating back to a New Year's Day loss at Rutgers, the Owls' next opponent. Not since the 1975-76 season, when then-coach Don Casey's team lost 11 straight, has the program endured a losing streak of this variety.

Temple's last win came four days before Christmas in a 101-65 blowout of LIU Brooklyn. The eight consecutive losses have been by an average of 8.6 points. Last Tuesday's 90-66 blowout loss at Connecticut was the only one in which the Owls were not competitive.

A look at the Owls' bench during any game offers a glimpse of what could possibly be next season. Sophomore forward Daniel Dingle, who is out with torn meniscus cartilage, is likely lost for the season. Texas transfer Jaylen Bond will offer help in the frontcourt and Clemson transfer Devin Coleman could do the same for the backcourt, as could Massachusetts transfer Jesse Morgan - if he graduates this summer and successfully appeals the NCAA for a final season of eligibility.

"They're going to be a problem for everyone in our league next season," Cincinnati program Mick Cronin said of Temple.

But for now, Dingle, Bond, Coleman and Morgan all wear shirts and ties during games and next season is a long way off. Temple has 12 games left and whatever it can make of the inaugural American Athletic Conference tournament to salvage what it can of this season.

In the closing moments Sunday, the Owls had a chance to tie the game and send it to overtime or even win it with a three-pointer.

"It was either just to get to the rim or find a kick-out," Cummings said when asked about the design of Temple's last possession that ended in Brown getting his shot blocked. "That's just how it developed."

Temple coach Fran Dunphy offered a more detailed look at what might have been.

"I didn't want to get Pep out into the floor where they would deny him (the ball) right away," Dunphy said. "I didn't think Will was going to have that much of a fast path to the basket. So if Pep was right on his heels, he could have flipped it back to Pep and that's what I was hoping was going to happen."

But it didn't work out that way.

"Obviously Will saw Josh and Josh thought he saw something," Dunphy said. "I haven't seen it on film yet and we'll take a look at it, but 7.2 (seconds) is a long time. There's a lot of bounces in there and we were hoping that at some point Pepper was going to end up with the ball but more because he's trailing the play, rather than if he's out on the floor and they double-teamed him or denied him and that would eliminate him being part of that last play."

Pepper did everything he could and more to give Temple a chance to win. His career-high 33 points were fueled by 8 of 14 shooting from three-point range, and his eight threes were the most by a Temple player in the Liacouras Center since David Hawkins did it back in 2004. Twenty-six of Pepper's points came in the second half.

"They did a good job of finding me," Pepper said of his teammates. "Will made some good plays. Josh and 'Q' (Quenton DeCosey) kicked it out to me when I was open. I was just feeling it. It felt like anything I was shooting was going in."

Beyond that, though, Pepper didn't get much help.

Cummings had 14 with the help of 8 of 9 shooting from the free-throw line. Junior forward Anthony Lee had 12 points and six rebounds after failing to grab a single board at UConn five days ago. DeCosey, who scored just two points in the first half, finished with eight on 3 of 15 shooting.

Sophomore center Devontae Watson started again but continued to look lost, playing just 12 minutes in which he didn't take a shot and contributed just three rebounds and two blocks. Brown had five off the bench and freshman forward Mark Williams had as many turnovers (two) as points in 13 minutes.

Cincinnati, which improved to 19-2 overall and a perfect 8-0 in the American, got 15 points from Shaquille Thomas and won despite losing starting forward Justin Jackson, the team's best defender, to a sprained ankle after just six minutes of play.

The Bearcats, who came into the game ranked third in the country in scoring defense, were allowing an average of just 55.9 points per game and allowed almost that much - 50 - in the second half alone and still won. They outscored the Owls by 13-3 in fastbreak points and by 23-9 in bench scoring.

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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