For about 33 minutes, Temple reminded itself and its fans what it can be like to go toe to toe with a top-25 team, just as it had in its previous six seasons.
But when there was a loose ball on the floor to be grabbed, an offensive rebound to be swiped or a big shot to be made, 24th-ranked Memphis was just better down the stretch and finished off a 79-69 win over the Owls Saturday afternoon at the Liacouras Center before a crowd of 5,718 fans.
The Tigers, who were coming off a win at No. 12 Louisville Thursday night, improved to 12-3 overall and 3-1 in the American Athletic Conference. Temple, meanwhile, has lost four in a row and fell to 5-9 and 0-4 in The American.
The Owls, who were carried by Dalton Pepper's game-high 24 points, led by a point at 49-48 with 13 minutes, 46 seconds left to play after Quenton DeCosey hit 1 of 2 from the free throw line. Memphis' Geron Johnson had just committed the Tigers' seventh foul at that point to put his team in the penalty, and the Owls were still playing well enough to win.
Until the media timeout at the 13:38 mark.
Temple came out of the break in a 2-3 zone, and things looked to be working for at least one possession when guard Joe Jackson, Memphis' leading scorer, lofted an air ball. But then Michael Dixon Jr. hit consecutive three-pointers and Chris Crawford canned another trey to send the Tigers on a 15-4 run that gave them a 10-point lead and control of the game.
The Owls got as close as five at 67-62 when Anthony Lee hit 1 of 2 from the foul line and again at 69-64 on a Pepper layup, but Memphis scored 10 of the game's last 15 points to finish Temple off, including a couple of key buckets in the paint by George Washington transfer David Pellom, a player with whom the Owls had become familiar over the past three seasons in the Atlantic 10.
At various times throughout the season when speaking to the media, Temple players have lamented the missed opportunities that have sent them to their 5-9 record and the dangerous territory where they reside now that suggests their string of six consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances is likely to be broken.
On Saturday, Pepper took his turn.
"One or two more stops," Pepper said, "one or two more makes and we're right there at the end of the game."
But that's the thing. The stops and the makes aren't coming when Temple needs them most, and Pepper couldn't do it all by himself. He shot 8 of 16 overall and 4 of 7 from three-point range, including a 22-footer he swished at the halftime buzzer to give the Owls a 37-36 lead at the break. He also contributed eight rebounds, an assist and a steal and turned the ball over just twice in playing all 40 minutes.
DeCosey had 18 points on 7 of 14 shooting, but the 6-foot-5 guard had just one rebound and no assists in 40 minutes. Lee struggled, shooting 3 of 11 overall and just 3 of 8 from the free-throw line. Several of his misses came at or around the rim.
Junior point guard Will Cummings, who took a shot to the head on a screen Thursday and missed the entire second half of the South Florida game with concussion-like symptoms, did get medically cleared to play Saturday and started, scoring 11 points on 2 of 6 shooting to go with five assists and four turnovers in 29 minutes.
When asked if he was plagued by any fatigue from the injury, Cummings said, "I'm in game shape, so a day's not going to get me out of shape."
When he was asked how he played, Cummings simply said, "Not good."
Temple, which is down to eight available scholarship players with forward Daniel Dingle's meniscus tear injury, needed to be very smart and very good to beat a better Memphis team, and the Owls just weren't good enough or smart enough when it mattered.
Lee's misses around the rim and at the free throw line were costly. And some players, like freshman forward Mark Williams, who returned after missing Thursday's game with a sprained ankle, simply tried to make plays they're not ready to make.
With the Owls still within seven at 65-58 with a little less than six minutes to go, Williams took a pass along the baseline, about 10 feet from the basket. Instead of passing the ball back out, he tried an ill-time spin move, traveled and turned the ball over.
Defense hasn't been Temple's strength this season, but the Owls defended Memphis' Jackson, who came in averaging a team-best 15 points a game, well enough to win. He shot just 4 of 14 overall and 0-for-5 from beyond the arc and scored just 10 points.
But sophomore forward Shaq Goodwin, a blue-chip recruit out of Georgia, killed Temple. The 6-9 post player scored a team-high 23 points on 7 of 11 shooting and 9 of 11 from the foul line and grabbed 11 rebounds, including eight on the offensive end - three more offensive boards than Temple's entire team.
All the key statistical categories pretty much told the story of Temple's fourth consecutive loss. The Tigers outscored the Owls, 42-26, in the paint, by a whopping 17-0 on second-chance points, by 19-2 on fast break points and by 21-7 on bench scoring, with Dixon's 15 points giving Memphis a big boost in that area.
It's been mentioned before, but a mix of recruiting misses (Temple entered the season with just nine available scholarship players) and injuries like the one to Dingle have the Owls where they are now -- on a path to the program's worst season since Fran Dunphy's first at Temple in 2006-07, when the Owls went 12-18. At this point, it might be fair to say that seven more wins to equal that 12-win total from seven years ago against a tougher conference schedule in The American might be hard to come by.
Dunphy, like his players, praised the effort and pointed to the fact that the Owls are often right there at the end of most games. But like his players, he knows the execution hasn't been there. Temple lost five key players from last season's NCAA Tournament team, but heading into the season with just two incoming recruits (a third, guard Kyle Green from Camden Catholic High School elected not to enroll at Temple this fall) didn't do much to address that roster turnover.
And when he was asked about the challenges of playing in a new conference, Dunphy started offering looks to the future, something coaches don't typically do when they know they're in the mix to play important games in March.
"I think we can be good in this league, and help is sort of on the way for next year's group," Dunphy said, perhaps referring to Temple recruit Obi Enechionyia and transfers Jaylen Bond, Devin Coleman and Jesse Morgan. "So it's just one of those things right now where we're just plugging away and trying to be the best team we can be. Now we've got Cincinnati on Tuesday, which is a very difficult team to beat."
Reading between the lines, it sounds like Dunphy knows his team will be very hard pressed to return to the postseason this season, and looking ahead to the future while the season is still going on in January isn't something Temple's done for quite some time.
Bond, the former Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School star forward who transferred in from Texas, is practicing with the team and sitting out this season. Coleman, a guard who played at Friends' Central, just transferred in Clemson and will have at least a year-and-a-half of eligibility, starting next December, and perhaps two if he pursues a hardship waiver with the NCAA.
"He's coming in and he'll provide veteran leadership for us on the court," Dunphy said when asked about Coleman, "and he's a good addition to our basketball program. As I said, with those three guys sitting out now, I think we're pretty solid with some good veterans coming into the program right away."
Later, Dunphy referenced Morgan by name.
"Already, Jesse and Jalen are getting on people's butt every single day," Dunphy said.
Morgan, the talented guard and Philadelphia native who was dismissed from Massachusetts and has been practicing with the Owls, was twice denied eligibility by the NCAA to play this season, but Dunphy keeps mentioning his name when it comes to the future, and it's been reported here and elsewhere that he could be granted one final year of eligibility with the NCAA if he earns his undergraduate degree this year.
But when asked about it again Saturday, Dunphy still was not sure if that will come to fruition.
"We don't know," Dunphy said of Morgan, who averaged 13.4 points per game for the Minutemen before he tore his ACL last January and was forced to withdraw from UMass back in April. "We were hoping it was going to be this year but obviously it didn't happen."
As for Dingle, who was averaging 6.7 points per game and had just moved into the starting lineup before hurting his knee in a Dec. 29 practice, Dunphy said he's still hoping his promising sophomore can return this year.
"I think it's too soon to say it," Dunphy said of Dingle, who is not eligible to take a medical redshirt this season because he will have played in more than 30 percent of Temple's games this season, "but my mind set is that it would really be a great fortune if he were able to help us at the end of the season."