PHILADELPHIA — Only one thing was running through Temple point guard Will Cummings’ mind after Rutgers erased a 20-point second-half deficit to take a one-point lead with just under three minutes remaining.
Then he did something about it.
Cummings had 21 points and a career-high eight assists, Dalton Pepper scored 20 and Temple snapped its longest losing streak in 38 years with an 88-82 win over Rutgers on Wednesday.
The victory was the first in American Athletic Conference play for the Owls, who had lost eight straight games to start the calendar year, including its first seven league contests.
“You just have to dig deep and do whatever you can to make sure it didn’t happen again,” Cummings said. “That’s what happened tonight.”
During the losing streak, the Owls have failed to close out games. But Cummings made sure that didn’t happen Wednesday.
After J.J. Moore buried back-to-back 3-pointers to give Rutgers a 75-74 lead with 2:49 left, Cummings responded with consecutive driving layups to put the Owls back ahead 78-75 with 1:30 left.
“His last two baskets is what kind of saved us,” Temple head coach Fran Dunphy said. “We obviously went down after having a decent lead in the second half and he rescued us with those two drives to the hoop.”
After Junior Etou made one of two free throws for Rutgers, Pepper scored with 57.2 seconds left, Temple forced a turnover on the other end and Josh Brown buried two free throws with 46.1 seconds left to put the Owls ahead 82-76.
Myles Mack, Rutgers’ leading scorer who didn’t start because of a minor team infraction, hit a 3-pointer with 40 seconds left to give the Scarlet Knights life. But after Temple threw the ball away, Rutgers gave it right back and Temple went 6 for 6 from the free throw line in the final 30 seconds to finally put an end to the program’s longest streak since the 1975-76 season.
“We needed it,” Dunphy said. “We needed it very, very badly. And I was proud of our guys.”
Anthony Lee and Quenton DeCosey finished with 15 points apiece for Temple (6-13, 1-7 American).
Kadeem Jack had 18 points and eight rebounds for Rutgers (8-13, 2-6), which has lost four straight and six of their last seven. Etou finished with 14 and Moore added 13.
The Scarlet Knights dropped to 0-6 on the road this season.
“It was just way too easy for them in the first half,” Rutgers coach Eddie Jordan said. “One bounce and they were at the rim it seemed like. We didn’t stay in front of people and just opened the floodgates for them.”
The floodgates actually didn’t open until late in the first half. Leading by just three with just over three minutes before halftime, the Owls reeled off a 13-1 run, taking a comfortable 50-37 advantage into the break. Pepper sparked the run with a pair of steals, a 3-pointer and a dunk. Cummings added six points during the stretch.
Pepper and Cummings combined to score 25 first-half points for the Owls, who shot a blistering 65.6 percent before the break and went 5 for 10 from 3-point range. Temple scored 50 points in two straight halves, following its 50-point second half vs. Cincinnati on Sunday with a 50-point first half Wednesday.
Despite shooting 52 percent in the first half, Rutgers fell behind by 20 after Temple scored the first seven points coming out of halftime. But Jack scored eight points in a four-minute stretch midway through the second half to help Rutgers get back into the game against an undermanned Temple squad playing with just eight healthy scholarship players.
“The reality is we made our run and then they were making their run,” Dunphy said. “The momentum of the game changed. It’s easier to play behind like that for them. They made easy shots and we didn’t do a good enough job defensively.”
Jordan was pleased with the comeback, if not the final score.
“It showed that if we trust in what we want to do, execute our game plan, and play with a little more heart and soul, good things will happen,” said Jordan, who is no stranger to Philadelphia basketball, having coached the 76ers from 2009 to 2010. “And that’s what happened. That’s what I liked about our second half.”
But Cummings - who, along with Pepper, played all 40 minutes - wouldn’t allow another team to scrape out a win against his team.
Not at home. Not again.
“I’m tired,” Cumming said. “But that’s what you want to do as a competitor. Just being able to play the whole game and get the win is a great feeling.”