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Temple beaten to the ball and a crucial game | Mike Jensen

Houston quickly grabbed control of a game that had big NCAA implications for Temple.

Temple’s Shizz Alston Jr. drives during the Owls’ loss to Houston on Sunday.
Temple’s Shizz Alston Jr. drives during the Owls’ loss to Houston on Sunday.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Forget the score. The scoreboard said 41-20 at halftime, 80-59 at the end. The score was pretty compared with some of the numbers within the Temple-Houston box score late Sunday afternoon inside the Liacouras Center.

How do you fall behind 40-21 at halftime? You give up the first 15 points, not scoring for nine possessions. Your frustration seeps in. Your jump shots start to get forced, you're trying too hard to get your team going.

Here's the key part: Your misses stay missed.

In the first half of a basketball game that had massive NCAA implications for Temple, the Owls missed 20 shots from the field. Houston took control of 19 of them. Houston missed 20 first-half shots, the Cougars kept possession 11 times.

"We were a step slow all game long,'' Owls coach Fran Dunphy said.

"We've got to be better at taking contact,'' said top Temple scorer Quinton Rose. "The other team always throws the first blow, we just take it. I think we have to throw the first blow, especially on the boards. Everybody has to crash."

Five Temple starters combined for 6 first-half rebounds in 75 combined first-half minutes. The lack of aggression seeped into other areas: The team combined for one first-half free throw.

Temple's coach and his players saw the same thing that all of the 7,270 at the Liacouras Center saw, even the little ones there because it was Hooter's birthday and every quasi-mascot in the city showed up.

"I think we came out really flat,'' said top Temple reserve Nate Pierre-Louis.

The freshman suggested that Temple had underestimated Houston, but that sounds like something you say when you're trying to make sense of a miserable afternoon (and get out of the press room). The truth is, everyone in the building knew the high stakes. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi put it simply before the game: "Temple must beat Houston to remain on the consideration line."

This strange Temple season, which right now adds up to 15-12 overall and 7-8 in the American Athletic Conference, added another inexplicable chapter. How to add up the big wins and unexpected losses? Who expected a big lead at Wichita State (which Temple could not hold) followed by laying such an egg at home?

This part Pierre-Louis had dead on: "They came out guns blazing."

"It seemed like every time they needed an offensive opportunity, we played a decent defensive set, they got an offensive rebound and reset it,'' Dunphy said. "It broke our back."

This is what I know from a quarter-century of covering Dunphy teams. He teaches mentality. Those who like to say Dunphy is "a nice guy" never played for him. His practices, in good times or tough times, have never offered a whiff of "nice guy." (Most precise practices I ever saw, and I've seen a lot.)

So what? Fair enough. So what. Temple had a big game Sunday and didn't show up. Dunphy said that if there was a team that you could expect to have a letdown, it would have been Houston, coming off a big win over Cincinnati that puts the Cougars solidly in the NCAA picture.

How much of the rebounding problems, Dunphy was asked, came down to execution versus effort.

"Probably more execution than effort, but we didn't do a very good job on either side of the coin today,'' Dunphy said. "And I just think their speed and quickness and basketball IQ was way better than ours today."

Then he hit the bottom line again: "They beat us to the ball way too many times.''

It's not as if Houston is this massive group. Cougars coach Kelvin Sampson said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas had told him his team was 318th in the nation in overall height.

"For real, they keep stats on that?'' Sampson said was his response.

Sampson also threw this out there: "If size was important, what happened to the dinosaurs?"

You get the point.

"That's an old one,'' Sampson said. "No pun intended."

If you were looking for messages, you couldn't help noticing that Dunphy wasn't doing much subbing in the second half. If his starters had dug that hole, they could dig back out.

"You never quit is the message,'' Dunphy said. "Let's see if we can't make three shots in a row and get three stops in a row."

He got his answer. Three Temple makes in a row? That happened. Three misses? Houston shot better after halftime than before, over 50 percent from inside the arc. Maybe the rebounding margins got slightly less embarrassing. None of it meant much. A crucial game hadn't slipped away — the other team just beat the Owls to it from the jump.