PHILADELPHIA — Kelvin Sampson stepped on Temple’s court and saw a rare packed house ready to give Houston as much of a hard time as the Owls did in an unlikely triumph in Texas only two weeks ago.
For a moment, Sampson thought about what a scene like this meant for the coach down the sideline — Temple’s Aaron McKie — and the feelings the late Temple coach John Chaney might have had before such a big game.
“My first thought was coach Chaney,” Sampson said. “How proud he would have been of Aaron. I know what this looked like when Aaron got here. There’s been a steady growth and he’s got a good team.”
Good. Just not good enough to sweep a Houston team that doesn’t lose very often to any team — much less twice to the same one.
Jarace Walker scored 23 points, Marcus Sasser had 13 and No. 3 Houston earned retribution against Temple with an 81-65 win on Sunday night.
The Owls failed in their bid for a second upset after they toppled the Cougars from No. 1 in the AP men’s college basketball poll with a 56-55 win last month in Houston.
The Cougars (22-2, 10-1 American Athletic Conference) are now poised to regain the top spot in the AP poll after a dominant second half in Philly. No. 1 Purdue lost to Indiana and No. 2 Tennessee lost to Florida, leaving an opening for Houston to ascend to No. 1 on Monday.
Khalif Battle led Temple (14-10, 8-3) with 24 points.
Temple has traditionally struggled to draw a full house at Liacouras Center, even for games that include city rivals or Top 25 teams or in seasons full of NCAA Tournament promise. The arena was packed Sunday, and Owls students swayed behind the basket from the opening tip. There was a T-shirt “white out” that put some needed school spirit on display.
“Kudos to the Temple students. They were giving it to us from the baseline,” Sampson said.
Temple gave fans plenty of reason to cheer with nine 3-pointers in the first half. Battle hit a 3 for a 26-25 lead, Zach Hicks hit one for a three-point lead and Damian Dunn buried one that sent the Owls into halftime ahead 37-33.
“You never know when you’ll get a crowd like that again,” Battle said.
Unlike the first game, the Owls couldn’t take it to the wire. Houston trailed at halftime for only the third time this season before it rallied to win for the 13th time in 14 games. The Temple loss was the only one in that streak.
Playing the biggest home game in McKie’s four seasons, the Owls wilted offensively and didn’t have the defensive chops to slow Houston. The Cougars burst the game open with a 13-0 run to open the second half and never let the Owls make a serious run the rest of the way. The Owls were 7-of-24 shooting (29%) from the floor in the second half.
“When a guy made a mistake or didn’t make a shot, they dropped their head,” in the second half, McKie said. “We just couldn’t find a way to get out of our own way.”
Consider, in the first game, Temple did not make a bucket over the final 7:18 and was 5 of 21 from the field in the second half. Yet the offensive woes were offset by holding Houston to 34% shooting.
When Walker hit a 3 for a 56-48 lead Sunday with 8:47 left, it was good enough for one more point than Houston scored in the first game. The Cougars had 25 more in them.
“They’re a good team,” Battle said. “I feel like we’re just as good, if not better.”
Maybe only in Texas.