PHILADELPHIA (AP) - The first weeks of March had always been Temple’s best. Scissors were on hand to cut down some nets, plans were made for Selection Sunday parties, and there was always a line on the NCAA tournament bracket just waiting for the Owls.
The only waiting at Temple these days is for the season to mercifully end.
In the leanest of Temple seasons, Dalton Pepper and Will Cummings did enough to give the few fans who attended the home finale a reason to cheer.
Pepper scored 26 points and Cummings had 23 to lead Temple to an 86-78 overtime victory over Central Florida on Tuesday night.
In their first season in the American Athletic Conference, the Owls (8-21, 3-14) are already guaranteed their worst record in 117 years of the program’s history. They lost 20 games for the first time, ending a run of six straight 20-win seasons. The Owls were one of only eight schools to make the NCAA tournament each of the last six years.
Barring a stunning run through the AAC tournament, the streak is over.
“We need wins,” coach Fran Dunphy said. “We need to get some more confidence about ourselves. We obviously didn’t play great.”
Anthony Lee, who scored 20 points and had 10 rebounds, converted a three-point play with 1:07 left in OT to stretch the lead to 78-74 and help the Owls snap a three-game losing streak.
Calvin Newell led the Knights (11-17, 3-14) with 23 points and Kasey Wilson had 14.
The Knights played without leading scorer Isaiah Sykes (16.1 points) because of a foot injury. Sykes had 23 points and 15 rebounds in the Knights’ 78-76 win over Temple on Jan. 4. Coach Donnie Jones stayed home with the flu. UCF associate coach Shawn Finney filled in.
Without Sykes, the Knights needed late 3s in regulation from Newell and Eugene McCrory to get back in the game.
Newell, a Philly native, hit two tying free throws with 4.7 seconds left in regulation. UCF’s Staphon Blair blocked Cummings’ drive to the hoop just as time expired to send the game to OT.
Temple ends the season Saturday at USF.
“We’re kind of focused on closing this season with two wins and going in strong in the conference tournament,” Cummings said.
The Owls, playing the fifth-toughest schedule in the nation based on RPI, lost their experienced core of Khalif Wyatt, Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson, Scootie Randall and T.J. DiLeo. They helped the Owls go 24-10 last season, and they took top-seeded Indiana down to the wire in the third round of the NCAA tournament.
Wyatt, the Atlantic 10 player of the year, was a 20.5 points-per-game scorer. Hollis-Jefferson led the Owls in 3-point shooting and DiLeo was a stout defender.
Dunphy has won regular-season and conference-tournament championships with the Owls, has had them ranked in the poll, and had established one of the more respected programs in the nation.
Dunphy had never lost 20 games over a 25-year career that included NCAA trips with Temple and Penn. He knew this would be a rebuilding season, his most challenging one since he went 12-18 in 2006-07, his first one at Temple when he took over for Hall of Fame coach John Chaney.
Dunphy couldn’t have expected it would be this bad.
The Owls entered with four of the top 15 scorers in the AAC - but with the worst defense in the conference, allowing 78 points a game.
UCF made 11 of 23 3s overall and shot 67 percent in the second half to rally from an 11-point hole.
“A couple of their 3s were fortunate,” Dunphy said. “That’s not to suggest that our defense is solid at this point, it’s not. It’s not where it needs to be. We needed help on every aspect of our defensive play.”
The head-scratching plays have piled up at a surprising rate for a Dunphy team: Pepper grabbed a rebound off an airball late in the first half, then promptly stepped out of bounds.
“Even though we’ve lost some tough games, and it’s been a rough season, we’re still focused on trying to end the season on a bright note,” Pepper said.
With only nine available players, the thin roster has cost Temple down the stretch of tight games, as the starters log heavy minutes.
But help is on the way. Highly-touted recruit Obi Enechionyia is on the way and former Texas forward Jaylen Bond and Clemson transfer Devin Coleman will all join the program at some point next season. Pepper, Temple’s leading scorer, is the lone senior on the roster.
“We feel good about our future,” Dunphy said, “but at this point, our future is Saturday.”
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