PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The Temple Owls had a chance at the end. They’ve had plenty of chances this season. But once again, they came up short.
Temple (5-13, 0-7) rallied all the way back from a 19-point second-half deficit but couldn’t fully overcome No. 15 Cincinnati in an 80-76 loss on Saturday.
Dalton Pepper spearheaded the Temple comeback with a career-high 33 points and even managed to tie the game with 36.7 seconds to play on a 3-pointer.
“He was a superstar in the second half,” Temple coach Fran Dunphy said, referring to Pepper. “He obviously propelled us to get back into the game. We were in a little bit of trouble. So he was on fire.”
But Cincinnati’s Sean Kilpatrick, who had gone ice cold for the last 13 minutes, was the one who decided the outcome.
Kilpatrick drove to the basket 19 seconds after Pepper tied the game and was fouled by Temple’s Anthony Lee. The Cincinnati senior went to the line and promptly ended his 13-minute scoring drought by sinking the game-winning free throws and finishing with a season-high 29 points.
Temple attempted to tie the game again after Kilpatrick’s free throws, but Josh Brown’s floater was blocked by Jermaine Sanders with a half-second to play. Kevin Johnson added two more free throws for the Bearcats, who had their nation-best streak of holding 27 consecutive opponents under 70 points ended.
“We probably should have looked for (Pepper) a couple more times toward the latter part of the game,” Dunphy said.
On the Owls’ final possession, the one that ended in Sanders’ block on Brown, Dunphy tried to a draw up a play that featured Pepper as a late trailer, hoping he would be able to work his way to an open shot.
“I just wanted it to go in, whoever shot it,” Pepper said.
Instead, point guard Will Cummings found Brown, and Brown — and Temple’s comeback chances, after a furious comeback — were rejected.
“At no point was I confident the game was over,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. “I was concerned the whole time.”
Pepper is almost single-handedly the reason for that concern. No other Owl scored more than 14 in the game, but Pepper scored 27 of 33 in the second, tied a building record for the most threes made by an Owl at the Liacouras Center with eight. He scored more points in the second half (27) than he had in any other full game his entire college career (26).
“You have to give the kid credit,” Cronin said. “Obviously I’m not happy about (our three-point defense), but I don’t believe in coming in and banging on my players and disregarding a performance like Dalton Pepper put up.
“(He) played as good as a guy can possibly play at his position in the second half.”
He did, although Temple remains winless in the American. Its losing streak is its longest since the 1975-76 team lost 11 straight. The four straight home losses are its most since 2001-02. The Owls have lost their last eight games in a row overall and 10 of their last 11.
Eight of their 13 losses this year, including Sunday’s, have come by seven points or less.
“Every game this year expect for really last (against UConn), I feel like we could have won,” Pepper said. “The way this season is going, one bounce here or there and we can win.
Cincinnati (19-2, 8-0), meanwhile, is off to to its best start since 2001-02 and its best start in league play since they went 8-0 in Conference USA that same season. This was the Bearcats’ second win over Temple in two weeks. They won the first meeting at home, 69-58, on Jan. 14. They’ve now won 12 games in a row and won 10 or more consecutive games in three of the last four seasons.
Still, Kilpatrick argued, this win was as tough as any they’ve earned this season.
“This is one of our top two (wins),” he said. “Memphis was the No. 1. But this is top two because this is a hard place to play at. … Being able to have these type of wins in this environment is big.”
The Bearcats will have a chance to add to their resume on Thursday when they visit No. 12 Louisville for their first meeting with the Cards this season. In that sense, Sunday could have proven a trap game, and almost did thanks to Pepper.
“They’ve lost a lot of close games,” Cronin said, “but they continue to play hard. … They’re shorthanded, they have guys sitting out for next year, and they’re going to be a problem for everybody in our league next season.”
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