LEARNING PROCESS: 102-88 loss to Heft, Weatherford in home finale sends TC men to 1-13 NTJCAC record
GETTING A HAND UP: Sophomore guard Tyler Watkins (1) of Temple College contests a 3-point shot by Weatherford sophomore guard Aaron Heft during the first half of the Leopards' 102-88 loss to the Coyotes on Saturday afternoon at TC Gym. Heft made five 3-pointers and scored a game-high 31 points, while Watkins scored 20 points in his final TC home game. Aleu Aleu scored a team-leading 25 points for the Leopards (5-13), who lost their 12th straight Northern Texas Junior College Athletic Conference game and finished 1-13 in the league. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
Nothing about the 2020-21 basketball season has been easy for Temple College first-year head coach Clifton Ellis and his Leopards.
Start with the fact that TC wasn't able to play its first regular-season game until Jan. 30 because of factors related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including a positive test for Ellis, the former Leopards point guard who succeeded longtime head coach Kirby Johnson last April.
Then add in the games and practices that several primary players missed throughout the season because of positive virus tests and required quarantine periods.
For the Leopards, the fallout during the Northern Texas Junior College Athletic Conference schedule has been seen in their inability to develop and sustain a consistent rhythm and continuity as a team.
For example, take Temple's regular-season, conference and home finale against Weatherford on Saturday afternoon at TC Gym.
Entering the day with an 11-game losing streak in conference play, the Leopards never led during the first half and trailed by as many as 11 points, but they battled back and cut their halftime deficit to 46-43 when sophomore point guard Tyler Watkins beat the buzzer with a 3-point basket.
The Coyotes put together an 11-0 run early in the second half to seize a 69-52 advantage, yet freshman guard Davion Sargent-Young made three 3-pointers in a 2:12 span to fuel the Leopards' 11-0 spurt for a 69-63 game with 12½ minutes remaining. And Temple still was in prime contention with 5:44 left, trailing 83-76 after sophomore forward Aleu Aleu made two free throws.
But as has been the case in other close games for the Leopards, making enough key plays in crunch time proved elusive and led to another frustrating loss.
Temple couldn't muster enough offensive production or defensive stops down the stretch against Weatherford, which got 31 points from sophomore guard Aaron Heft in its 102-88 win that sealed the Leopards' last-place finish in the NTJCAC with a 1-13 record.
After beating Southwestern Christian 93-75 in its NTJCAC home opener Feb. 10, Temple lost its final 12 conference games – five by 15-plus points but four by nine points or less, including two-point setbacks at Weatherford and at home against Ranger and a six-point home defeat against rival McLennan.
“It's inconsistent play. It's just always been something where we've had trouble establishing any kind of a rhythm,” Ellis said. “We've just got to find some consistent play. I think some of the plays are there to be made in front of us; we just have to make them.
“Obviously we just have to keep getting better. At times we're growing and we're getting better. We've just got to slow down and make the simple play that's in front of us. For us, once we start making some bad plays, they seem to snowball on us for some reason. It happens.”
Aleu paced the Leopards (5-13 overall) with 25 points and Watkins produced 20, but Sargent-Young with 11 points was TC's only other double-figure scorer. Maison Adeleye had nine points and fellow freshman Brandon Monroe – Adeleye's high school teammate at Arlington Seguin – added eight.
Heft, a muscular 6-foot-3 guard who made five 3-pointers and elevated above defenders to make several other shots, shredded Temple's defense for 17 points in the first half and 14 in the second to lead Weatherford (10-12, 4-10), which finished in sixth place in the eight-team NTJCAC. Three other Coyotes scored 14-plus points for veteran head coach Mark Osina: sophomore guard Dillion Bennett with 18, 6-8, 285-pound sophomore center D'Michael Bellfield with 17 and freshman guard Trey Glenn with 14.
“I mean, sometimes it does boil down to making shots. That's happened a lot. It happened at Grayson in our last game (a 117-99 loss Wednesday). We were down four with like 5 minutes to go and they just kept making shots, and we missed them,” Ellis said. “Sometimes it is that, but a lot of time when they do miss them, we've got to clean up the rebounds. Like I said, we're just having trouble putting together consistent play, whether it's rebounding or taking care of the ball.
“Part of it is we're learning how to play at this level. Certain guys are trying to understand that some of the things you got away with in high school, you can't do anymore. That's part of their growth and maturity. But we've all got to keep getting better. That's coaches, that's players, that's everybody. That's got to be the way we operate. Everybody's got to find a way to get better each day.”
In a normal season, Temple long ago would have fallen out of contention for one of the NTJCAC's four berths in the NJCAA Region V Tournament, which also takes the top four teams from the Western Junior College Athletic Conference. In this pandemic-affected season, however, every NTJCAC team advances to what's essentially a conference tournament.
As the league's No. 8 seed, Temple will play at conference champion and No. 24-ranked Grayson (18-2, 12-2 NTJCAC) in a quarterfinal matchup this coming Wednesday in Denison. The winner will move on to play the Collin-Hill winner in a semifinal.
“That was my message to the guys after this game: 'Everybody one through eight is in the same predicament and you've got to win the game in front of you to advance,'” Ellis said. “We've made some adjustments to help us play better at times. We've just got to make the plays to do it.”
Earlier Saturday afternoon at TC Gym, the Temple women's team staved off Weatherford for an 83-82 win that snapped a two-game losing streak. The Lady Leopards (14-6) of first-year head coach Amber Taylor tied Ranger for third place in the NTJCAC at 10-6 and clinched a first-round home game in the conference tournament, to be played this coming Wednesday. Hill (14-2 NTJCAC) won the league championship by one game over Grayson.
When Heft made an NBA-range 3-pointer from the left wing to give Weatherford a 3-0 lead 27 seconds into the men's regular-season finale, it was a sign of things to come. He nailed another one – from the right wing – 2 minutes later to make it 8-2.
ALEU ELEVATION: Temple College sophomore forward Aleu Aleu (right) takes a running shot in the lane over Weatherford defenders including Aaron Heft (11) during the second half of the Leopards' 102-88 loss to the Coyotes in the conference finale for both teams Saturday afternoon at TC Gym. The 6-foot-8 Aleu, a Texas-San Antonio signee, made three 3-point shots and scored a team-high 25 points in his final home game. Teammate Tyler Watkins had 20 points for Temple (5-13, 1-13), which will play at NTJCAC champion Grayson (18-2, 12-2) in a first-round conference tournament game on Wednesday in Denison. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Early offense from Texas-San Antonio signee Aleu – a three-point play, a leaning banker and a right-wing 3 – and Watkins, including his left-handed layin off a steal by sophomore guard Khouri Perkins, helped the Leopards stay close to the Coyotes, trailing 21-18 with 10½ remaining.
However, Heft got the roll on a shot in the lane, came off a curl to hit a 3 from up top and then sank a 17-footer for a 30-20 Weatherford advantage 7:30 before halftime.
“He made some tough, contested shots,” Ellis said about Heft, whom TC limited to 11 points in the teams' first meeting Feb. 27. “At certain points, the best thing you can do is just keep him from getting the ball. And then once he does get it, contest it. He hit some shots deep in the (shot) clock, and that really hurt us, that we guarded for 25 seconds and he got open and made a shot.”
When 6-7 Australian Konnor Ross cut in for a dunk, the Coyotes had their largest lead of the first half at 34-23 at the 5:17 mark. But the Leopards responded well, getting three-point plays from Adeleye and Aleu plus Aleu's fallaway 14-footer and Adeleye's steal and difficult layup. Freshman forward Tawab Kokumo scored inside, then TC waited to take the half's final shot before Watkins used a high screen and made a straight-on 3-pointer with 2 seconds left to trim the Leopards' deficit to 46-43 at halftime.
Three-pointers by Glenn and Heft helped Weatherford expand its lead from three to 17 at 69-52 in the first 5:12 of the second half, but the biggest problem – literally – for Temple during that 23-9 Coyotes run was the interior dominance of Bellfield, the burly center who bullied his way through the Leopards' defense for three close-range buckets before adding a three-point play, letting out a loud yell after making the basket.
The Leopards badly needed a spark at that juncture, and Sargent-Young gave it to them. Scoreless up to that point, the 6-1 guard from Katy drilled three 3s in a span of 2:12 to key TC's 11-0 run that made it 69-63 with 12:26 remaining.
Soon after that Sargent-Young scored on a driving layup, then Aleu made a left-wing 3 and answered Heft's 3 with another 3 of his own to push the Leopards as close as they would get to the Coyotes in the second half, 76-71 with 9:14 left.
Temple still was in position to grab a comeback win after Aleu's two free throws made it 83-76 with 5:44 remaining, but Bellfield then expertly used his pivot foot to score inside and added another easy basket off an inbound pass to make it 87-76. Watkins tried to keep TC afloat, but the Leopards couldn't keep the Coyotes from scoring in the final 4 minutes.
Perkins scored only two points in his final home game, and freshman guard Elijah Lomas – who had missed TC's previous six games – couldn't connect from 3-point range and was scoreless against Weatherford.
“We had some guys play well in bits and pieces – Davion in the second half, Aleu had some moments, Tyler had some moments,” Ellis said. “But we've never had it to where we can get five guys on the court gelling as one consistently. And part of that was not being able to have scrimmages earlier in the year and not being able to play the preseason games, when I think you figure some of that stuff out. We had to figure it out during conference, and that's a tough learning curve to go through.”
At least one more game remains for Temple this season, but Ellis already can envision more stability, normalcy and success for his Leopards during the 2021-22 campaign.
“Let's hope,” he said. “Let's hope.”
MEN'S COLLEGE BASKETBALL
Northern Texas Junior College
Weatherford 102, Temple College 88
Weatherford (10-12, 4-10 NTJCAC) – Aaron Heft 31, Dillion Bennett 18, D'Michael Bellfield 17, Trey Glenn 14, Dovydas Pinskus 8, Jakobi Greenleaf 5, Robertas Sycius 5, Javon Juarez 2, Konnor Ross 2.
Temple (5-13, 1-13 NTJCAC) – Aleu Aleu 25, Tyler Watkins 20, Davion Sargent-Young 11, Maison Adeleye 9, Brandon Monroe 8, Tawab Kokumo 7, Mawien Mawien 6, Khouri Perkins 2.
3-point goals – Weatherford 9 (Heft 5, Glenn 3, Sycius 1); Temple 10 (Aleu 3, Sargent-Young 3, Monroe 2, Watkins 2).
Free throws – Weatherford 19-27; Temple 12-17.
Halftime score – Weatherford 46, Temple 43.
Note – Temple finishes in eighth place in the NTJCAC and will play at champion Grayson (18-2, 12-2) in the first round of the conference tournament on Wednesday in Denison; sixth-place Weatherford will play a first-round game at third-place McLennan (17-4, 10-4) on Wednesday in Waco.