PISCATAWAY, N.J. – Through the first two months of the season, the fortunes of the Temple basketball team closely followed those of sophomore forward Daniel Dingle.
In November, Dingle struggled, and the Owls lost three of their first four games. More recently, the versatile forward found his niche, particularly on the offensive end of the floor. And Coach Fran Dunphy's squad won four of six – and probably should have won six in row – heading into conference play.
So it was no coincidence that the Owls, three days after losing Dingle to what is likely a season-ending knee injury, crash-landed in a 71-66 loss to Rutgers in their AAC opener on Wednesday night at the RAC.
From start to finish, the Owls (5-6) looked disjointed on offense – finishing 24 of 72 from the field, with only nine assists on those 24 baskets. And they couldn't defend the paint when it counted.
Rutgers scored its last 13 points in the paint or at the free throw line, including a decisive three-point play by freshman forward Junior Etou that gave his team a 68-66 lead with 41 seconds to go.
Will Cummings missed a 15-foot jumper with 20 seconds left – "I think he rushed it," Dunphy said afterward – and for the third time in their past four games, the Owls lost after having the lead with less than a minute to play.
This was a particularly bumpy ride.
Freshman forward Mark Williams replaced Dingle in the starting lineup, and provided an eye-popping seven offensive rebounds in 24 minutes. But nobody could replace Dingle's ability to keep the offense moving from a frontcourt position – resulting in a lot of one-on-one play.
Cummings and Anthony Lee were the biggest culprits, each playing probably their worst offensive game this season. Cummings shot 2 for 12 from the field and finished with five points and one assist, while Lee went 3 for 15 from the floor. And few of his misses were close. He did battle inside for 13 rebounds.
"Both of them tried to do too much on their own," Dunphy said. "They needed to trust their teammates more."
For much of the game, the Owls were carried by Quenton DeCosey, who nailed his first six three-point attempts. DeCosey scored 25 points in the first 25 minutes. Then Rutgers started running a hard double-team at him – as far as 25 feet from the basket. And DeCosey didn't score again.
But that was OK, because Dalton Pepper picked up the slack. Incredibly, after going scoreless for nearly 30 minutes, Pepper scored 19 straight points for the Cherry and White.
Despite their offensive struggles, the Owls seemed to be in decent shape entering the final minutes.
That's when Dingle's absence was felt on the defensive end of the floor.
Though Williams had helped on the offensive glass, and Devontae Watson contributed five rebounds and four blocked shots in six minutes off the bench, Dunphy chose to go with a smaller lineup in the last five minutes.
Freshman Josh Brown joined Cummings, Pepper, DeCosey, and Lee, putting four guards on the floor. Rutgers Coach Eddie Jordan went with three big forwards.
And while the Scarlet Knights struggled a bit to move the ball, they were eventually able to isolate power forward Kadeem Jack against DeCosey or Pepper. Jack scored a pair of crucial baskets and center Wally Judge had a huge putback in the last five minutes.
Meanwhile, the Owls missed seven straight shots after grabbing a 64-63 lead with 3:37 to go.
Yet they still regained the lead – 66-65, on a Lee putback with 54 seconds left – thanks to Rutgers' own miscues.
But it ultimately wasn't enough.
And without Dingle, there are more questions than answers as the Owls head to Central Florida for their next AAC game on Saturday afternoon.
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