In only his second college start in four seasons, Dalton Pepper scored a career-high 19 points for Temple. (USA Today Images)
Dalton Pepper has waited five years for a game like this. Yet he seemed neither excited nor relieved. More calm than anything.
He sat at a table fielding questions from reporters as if he hadn't just turned in the best performance of his college career. When he had just turned in the best performance of his college career.
"Yeah, I guess so," Pepper said, asked if this was the kind of game he'd been waiting for since he started his college career. "I just wanted to go out and play as hard as I can and do as much as I can for the team."
Pepper, Temple's lone senior, finished with a team- and career-high 19 points as the Owls held off a late rally from Penn to win, 78-73, at the Palestra Saturday night in their first game of the season.
In only his second college start in four seasons, Pepper went 6 for 13 from the field, 3 for 6 from three, and fell one rebound short of a double-double with nine boards. In 31 minutes, he handed out three assists without once turning the ball over.
He got off to a fast start with 10 points in the first six minutes, and after Temple had blown a 15-point lead (see Instant Replay), he scored the winning basket with 45 seconds to play on a lay-up before eventually icing the game with two free throws.
"They made their run, and we showed a lot of poise at the end," he said. "I thought it was good for the team."
Good for him, too.
It's been something of a long road for Pepper, who transferred to Temple from West Virginia in 2011. The Levittown, Pa. native left Pennsbury high school with the school's all-time record for points and took home the AP's 2009 big school player of the year award before moving on to West Virginia -- where things never quite worked out.
He sat out a year per NCAA transfer rules in 2011-12 and struggled mightily in his first 20 games last year, shooting 21.8 percent from the field over that stretch. Ever since the transfer -- thanks at least in part to whatever Bob Huggins did to his game -- every question about Pepper has been about his confidence.
Does he feel like a more confident player? Because he certainly looked like one Saturday night.
"Coming out, making the first shot (a three-pointer) felt good," Pepper said. "It got the jitters out."
"What won the game was free throws at the end. So I wanted to calm down at the end and knock down those two. I felt confident in those."
Maybe, more than anything, it was just being able to get into a rhythm, instead of having to worry about when the hook was coming after a missed shot or two.
In three college seasons, Pepper has never averaged more than 12.4 minutes a game. Saturday night, he played the most he ever has. After the game, his coach, Fran Dunphy, was asked if it's just a case of Pepper needing a hot start to avoid getting down on himself.
But as Dunphy pointed out, no one really knows.
"He's not played that many minutes in his career," Dunphy said. "You're asking me a question that I don't have the answer to because we haven't seen him play that many [minutes]. If we see him play at least 30-some minutes again, then we're going to have the answer to that question, about how much confidence he still has.
The Owls will need this kind of production and leadership out of Pepper moving forward. Dunphy played eight guys within the first seven minutes of the game against Penn, and that's his entire rotation. Five of those eight are freshmen or sophomores.
"I'm just leading the younger guys," Pepper said. "The two freshmen are going to play a lot. We have three sophomores who are going to play a lot. So it's really only me, Will (Cummings) and Ant (Lee) [as upperclassmen]. We've just got to step and lead those guys and show them the way."
As Pepper's cheering on the underclassmen, everyone else will be throwing their support behind the Owls' only senior, now in his fifth and final year of eligibility.
"Nobody's rooting for Dalton Pepper more than our coaching staff and his teammates," Dunphy said. "He's earned this right and we want him to be the best player he can be.
"Now, we don't have much of a rest period. We're going to turn around and play Kent State on Monday night, and Pep's got to be the same guy on Monday. That's the big challenge for him.
"He's a good guy and I'm rooting like crazy for him."