In Liacouras swan song, Pepper lifts Temple to win

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In Liacouras swan song, Pepper lifts Temple to win

BOX SCORE

Dalton Pepper took the floor before his teammates Tuesday night.

Honored as the Owls' lone senior this season, he was walked out to midcourt by his parents before posing for a picture with his head coach and athletic director and finally being presented with a framed jersey.

Then, once the game started, he stayed on the floor as long as anyone.

In the final home game of his collegiate career, Pepper scored a game-high 26 points in a whopping 44 minutes to lead Temple over UCF, 86-78, in overtime (see Instant Replay).

It's not quite the end of his career -- the Owls have one more regular-season game and then the American Athletic Conference tournament to play -- but he's almost there.

And it was the last time he'd play in front of his friends and family at home.

"It feels really good to get a win in my last game at the Liacouras Center," he said. "I just wanted to end the regular season in the right way, and it was a big win for us."

Actually, it was only Temple's fourth home win of the season, if you can believe it. The Owls' (8-21, 3-14) season-long struggles have naturally extended to their home floor.

The Liacouras Center is a building in which Temple has always enjoyed success -- even before it was called the Liacouras Center. The Owls once won 25 straight games here from January 2010-December 2011 under Fran Dunphy. Coming into 2013-14, Temple was 152-43 at the Apollo for a 77.9 winning percentage since the building opened in 1997.

But Tuesday's down-to-the-wire win only improved the Owls' home record this year to a final 4-10. That number exactly doubles the record for the most losses by a Temple team at the Liacouras Center in a single season.

"It was an important win," Dunphy said. "Anytime … yeah, we need wins."

Even if only for Pepper. Frankly, he deserved one.

The fifth-year swingman came into Tuesday averaging a team-high 17.2 points per game, good enough for fourth in the American behind Russ Smith, Shabazz Napier and Sean Kilpatrick. Pepper is the only one of the four without a national profile.

He's just got one locally. A native of Levittown, Pa., he scored a Pennsbury High School-record 2,207 points, fell a few rebounds shy of 1,000 and was named the AP's 2009 Pennsylvania big school player of the year.

What happened after that has been repeated often this season. Pepper was recruited by Dunphy, but he ultimately chose Bob Huggins and West Virginia. After two years in Morgantown in which he struggled to crack the Mountaineers' rotation, he came home, transferred to Temple and sat out a season the 2011-12 season.

And last year, just like in his two years at West Virginia, he once again lacked opportunity. In an inconsistent 11.3 minutes per game on a team with five seniors, Pepper shot 21.8 percent through his first 20 games as an Owl.

Now, finally with a chance to shine, Pepper's been a 41.1 percent shooter this year in 37.1 minutes. In nine games this year, including Tuesday night, he's played 40 or more minutes.

It's just a shame that the season in which Pepper finally got his chance is the same season that Temple has set a new program record for losses.

"It's hard," Dunphy said when asked about senior, which is what he usually (and understandably) says when asked about it every year. As for Pepper, in specific:

"He's a tremendous kid. He's had a great season so far. He's got a little more to go, but he's given everything he possibly could. … When he came back into the locker room, everyone was very happy for him that he had his last game here at Liacouras. It was important that we won the game, but more importantly for them they wanted Pep to have this as a going away present."

Dunphy was then asked what it was like to finally see Pepper flourish after four years when it looked like he may have just been one of those really great high school players who never really translated to college.

"There's no way you can say he didn't have it in him," Dunphy said. "This is the kind of kid he can be. He just didn't have the confidence level that he has now. The fact that we needed him so badly, I've said to him a number of times, 'It's not like if you make a mistake you're coming out. You're not coming out. So do whatever you can to be the best player you can and stay in the moment.' And for the most part he has done that.

"We had a lot of bodies at his position last year, so he wasn't given that same opportunity to fail that he has this year. It's just the way life has worked out for him. But the great thing about him is he never complained about it.

"He just went ahead and did his work."

Villanova takes over No. 1 ranking in AP Top 25 poll

Villanova takes over No. 1 ranking in AP Top 25 poll

For the second time in school history — both in the last 10 months — Villanova is No. 1 in the country.

The 8-0 Wildcats received 57 of 65 first-place votes in the AP poll, moving ahead of previous No. 1 Kentucky, which lost 97-92 to UCLA on Saturday. (UCLA moved up to No. 2; Kentucky dropped to No. 6.)

Villanova had a pair of Big 5 games last week, beating Penn by 25 at the Palestra and St. Joe's by 31 at The Pavilion.

Dating back to last season, Villanova has won 14 straight games and a national championship. Jay Wright's team has won 19 of its last 20.

The Wildcats have been led by seniors Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins. Hart opted to forego the NBA draft and return to school after winning the title and, so far, the decision has paid off. His shooting percentages are up significantly and if he keeps it up, his draft stock will reflect that improvement. Hart is shooting a career-best 58 percent from the field and is up to 43 percent from three. As productive as Hart was last season, his long-distance shooting had dropped from 46 percent as a sophomore to 36 percent as a junior.

Hart is averaging 17.1 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists. Jenkins is averaging 14.5 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.9 assists. Jenkins has carried the confidence of his championship-winning three over into this season. He's shooting 45 percent from three and 94 percent from the line. 

Villanova plays twice this week, vs. La Salle (4-2) on Tuesday and vs. ACC-leading Notre Dame (8-0) Saturday.

Temple receives votes
Temple (6-2) was unranked but received three votes. Based on the votes received by other teams, it makes Temple the de facto No. 36 team in the country.

The Owls have won five in a row, including victories over then-No. 25 Florida State, then-No. 19 West Virginia, and two Big 5 wins last week over St. Joe's and Penn.

Temple faces George Washington on Wednesday and DePaul Saturday.

Resurgent Penn State headed to Rose Bowl vs. USC

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Resurgent Penn State headed to Rose Bowl vs. USC

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State players and coaches rolled hopefully back into Happy Valley on Sunday, greeted as Big Ten champions by cheers and honking car horns.

They got off the team bus, filed into a meeting room and huddled around a giant projector screen as the College Football Playoff selection committee made its picks.

As the contenders were announced, it became clear -- this unexpectedly triumphant season was going to fall frustratingly short of college football's biggest stage.

The fifth-ranked Nittany Lions -- winners of nine straight, including a huge comeback against No. 8 Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game -- won't be part of the four-team playoff. Despite a head-to-head win against No. 2 Ohio State, the Big Ten title and a run fueled by one of the country's most explosive offenses, Penn State was ranked fifth by the selection committee.

Instead of playing for a national title, Penn State (11-2) will face No. 9 Southern California (9-3) in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2.

"I would say there were a handful of guys that obviously showed a little bit of frustration and body language and things like that," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "But 99 percent of the guys in there are just excited about staying together as a family and being able to play in such a historic bowl game."

News about the bowl destination quelled a bit of that disappointment, and some, including quarterback Trace McSorley , tweeted their excitement with rose emojis Sunday.

Franklin didn't sleep much on the flight back from Indianapolis and is about to start a six-day recruiting trip, but he was still clearly amped for the Rose Bowl during a phone call with reporters -- even though he believed his team had done enough to go to the playoff by winning what he called "the toughest conference in football."

"Obviously, our guys would've loved to have the opportunity to go to the playoffs and compete for a national championship," Franklin said. "But like I said during the week, I thought our guys would be appreciative of the opportunity to be able to stay together as a family for another week and play the great game of football."

They'll do so against a team that's on a similar trajectory.

The Nittany Lions and Trojans have combined to win 17-straight games and are among the hottest teams in college football. Both have mounted striking turnarounds after ho-hum starts, energizing historically strong programs that had struggled with the weight of NCAA penalties in recent years.

Franklin arrived at Penn State in 2014 and took over a program heavily sanctioned by the NCAA for the university's role in the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. Although the Nittany Lions have a full scholarship load this season, they're still feeling the impact from reduced scholarship numbers and start just five seniors, with only 17 on the roster.

USC, meanwhile, incurred NCAA penalties, including the loss of 30 scholarships, in the wake of a scandal involving former football player Reggie Bush and basketball player O.J. Mayo, who the NCAA determined accepted gifts in the mid-2000s.

This will be the third time the programs match up in the Rose Bowl -- the first was in 1923 and the other in 2009.

"I think it makes for fabulous TV, that's for sure," USC coach Clay Helton said. "And it makes for a great bowl experience and that's what this time is all about."