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Temple's late rally falls short in 73-71 AAC tournament loss to USF

After the final buzzer, the minute details down the stretch became meaningless and Temple head coach Aaron McKie said postgame all they can do now is “learn from this and grow from this.”

The Owls’ shortened, COVID-ridden season culminated in a first-round exit of the American Athletic Conference tournament, falling to USF in a nail-biter, 73-71 at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas.

Temple played arguably its worst stretch of basketball all season for much of the second half, struggling to find any consistent rhythm offensively.

Even with that, Brendan Barry provided a spark off the bench that nearly saved its season.

Trailing by 11 with two minutes left, the Dartmouth grad transfer proceeded to knock down three consecutive shots from beyond the arc which cut Temple’s deficit to two. As the game felt nearly out of reach, considering the Owls scoring woes and uninspiring defense, Barry injected life back into his team.

“He’s dangerous,” USF head coach Brian Gregory said postgame. “We go with a touch coverage on him where you don’t really leave him because he’s changed games for them this year… He’s one of those guys that once he hits that first one you kind of start to hold onto your breath.”

The heat of the moment was most evident when freshman Jeremiah Williams and junior Xavier Castaneda received double technical fouls in the final minute after getting in each others’ faces and having to be separated.

On the ensuing possession, Bulls senior guard Justin Brown trampled Barry with a full head of steam raising his elbow and knocking him down. A brief review ended with the officials sticking by their original call that it was a common foul on Barry, meaning free throws for USF and an opportunity to stretch its lead.

“From my perspective, from my view, I thought it was a little bit more,” McKie said. “They came over to me and said it was just a common foul… At that point I thought we had the momentum and there was just a little shift there. Instead of us getting the ball or shooting two free throws, they ended up shooting the free throws.”

Brown missed the first and connected on the second, leaving the door cracked open for Temple to go the length of the floor and send the game to overtime or attempt to win it. Battle got the ball in his hands and just past half court, as the defense stepped up to apply pressure, lost control and it bounced into the hands of USF’s leading scorer David Collins.

“I just made a mistake,” Battle said, holding back any emotion.

After the ball went off of Battle’s foot, he quickly dropped to the floor with his hands in his face. He was immediately consoled by his teammates, who hugged him and kept him upright. Battle was led off the court in the hands of J.P. Moorman II and Williams, as he held back tears.

Following the final buzzer, McKie told his team’s leading scorer that he’s been in similar situations himself, having the last shot. Battle recalled him saying, “mistakes happen to the best of us,” and he said he will be ready if he gets the opportunity again.

The all-conference guard finished the afternoon with a team-high 18 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. Barry and Damian Dunn each contributed 11 points and three rebounds apiece.

Temple opened the afternoon firing on all cylinders, jumping out to an early double-digit lead. As USF responded on the scoreboard, the Owls cooled off. The Bulls dismantled the Owls’ 2-3 zone from every angle, knocking down six of its last eight shot attempts before the break while controlling the pace of the game into the second half.

Scoring drought after scoring drought dug the Owls into a hole that proved too deep to fully crawl out of. They opened the game shooting nearly 50% from the field but dipped down near 30% in the second half.

“We were rushing and everybody was playing as an individual trying to win the game with one shot,” McKie said. “I thought whenever we were moving the ball, whenever we were attacking the paint and kicking it, we got some really good shots. But got away from that and it cost us, quite honestly.”

Dunn, who missed Temple’s previous three contests due to a knee injury suffered in a loss to Cincinnati on Feb. 4, returned to the Owls’ lineup as the first guard off the bench.

Southeast Missouri State transfer Sage Tolbert also saw his first action in a Temple uniform. It was a short day for the junior forward, who missed the entirety of the regular season recovering from a knee injury. He played just eight minutes but McKie gave him a piece of the apple, a chance to see the floor in arguably the most important game of the season, contributing with three rebounds and one assist.

“He’s rusty and he hasn’t played in a long time,” McKie said. “I just wanted to throw him out there and try to get his legs under him, maybe hit those guys a little bit. I think as he gets his legs under him he’ll enjoy playing in games like this where teams are physical.”

Inserting Tolbert into the lineup couldn’t quite neutralize Temple’s size disadvantage. The Bulls won the rebounding battle 45-41 including 11 boards from Michael Durr, who pulled down six off the offensive glass.

The difference-maker in this game was ultimately Collins who scored a game-high 23 points and was the lifeblood of the Bulls’ offense down the stretch. The senior guard played a significant role in rifling through Temple’s defense leading to early runs that gave his team a lead in the final seconds of the first half that they would not look back on.

After surviving a late-game rally, USF will look ahead to tomorrow to face the AAC regular-season champs, Wichita State at noon.

As for the Owls, they will have an opportunity to digest the loss, reflect on the season and begin preparation for the future.

“I feel comfortable in saying that we got some good young pieces as we continue to move forward,” McKie said. “We just want to add some pieces around them to really complete the puzzle.”

Front page photo courtesy Ben Solomon.