Temple's Pepper looking to finish strong

Posted: March 05, 2014

IN A PERFECT world, every college athlete would get to go out on his terms.

Unfortunately, the world we live in is hardly without its imperfections. Fifth-year Temple guard Dalton Pepper can identify with that. The team's lone senior, he averages 17.2 points, fourth in the American Athletic Conference, just ahead of teammate Will Cummings. The only guys ahead of them are Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick, Connecticut's Shabazz Napier and Louisville's Russ Smith. The difference: Those three play for Top 25 teams.

Unless they win their conference tournament, the Owls (7-21, 2-14) won't be going to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 7 years.

Tonight is their final home game, against Central Florida (11-16, 3-13), which beat them by two on Jan. 4 in Orlando, Fla. Pepper, a Pennsbury High product who spent two seasons at West Virginia before transferring, says he doesn't remember ever playing on a losing team. In four high-school seasons, during which he scored 2,207 points, the Falcons never lost a Suburban One National game. And West Virginia went to the Final Four when he was a freshman. So this season has been different.

"It's tough," said Pepper, who started only once at WVU and not at all last season, when he averaged three points in 11 minutes on a team that had five seniors. "No one wants to go through something like this. Personally, it's been good to me, being able to just compete, but you want to make the most of it.

"I mean, I like going out there and playing on national television against some great teams. Of course, I'd rather be winning. You hear people say things. We're struggling. Temple's not used to losing. But there's only so much you can do.

"I'm happy everyone else gets to come back for another year. They've got some guys coming in. I think they're going to be a solid team. But for me, I'm getting near the end. That's how life can be. Things don't always go your way."

The Owls have lost a bunch of close ones, many to good opponents. And they've had their injury issues. Still, nobody figured it would get this bad. You can learn a lot about people from the way they deal with it.

"You'd rather learn the other way," Pepper said. "You have to keep going, fight through it. Maybe something good will happen at the end. I really believed we could kind of turn this around at some point. The injuries kind of hurt us. But there's nothing you can do. That happens in sports.

"Coach [Fran Dunphy] has done of good job of just keeping us motivated, making sure we're doing the right things. We went to Memphis [on Feb. 22] without one of our starters [Anthony Lee, the AAC's top rebounder] and lost in overtime. It would be easy to give up and look to next year, but he hasn't done that. And I respect that."

The feeling absolutely runs two ways.

"He's had a real nice year for us, and I'm happy for him," Dunphy said. "I think he raised some eyebrows, in terms of people appreciating that he can play this game. He's a pretty solid human being, who's grown so much. He's pretty mature and knows what he wants. I think he'll be a real happy person, no matter what he does.

"As a coach, it's always hard to say goodbye. You only get these guys for a little bit of time. And in Dalton's case, he had less than a 4-year career here. And 1 year he can't play at all, and another he didn't get a chance to play very much. Now he's put in a role where you're expected to do much, if not more than you can do. That's what we've asked, and he's accepted that. It's great to have someone like that in your program."

Pepper, who's already earned his degree in communications, wants to continue playing somewhere overseas. But first he'd like to win a few more games, as in plural. The Owls close at South Florida (12-17, 3-13) Saturday before heading to Memphis for the first AAC Tournament. They won't be the favorite. But they have beaten nationally ranked SMU, and nearly beat nationally ranked Cincinnati twice. If nothing else, they plan on showing up to see how long they can keep the journey going.

And, in Pepper's case, a career that maybe didn't turn out the way many anticipated. Nevertheless, it's been his career. And he can certainly live with that.

"I can't change what happened," said Pepper, whose brother Brandon played on West Chester's football team that made the Division II national semifinals in December. "If I had to go back, I don't think I would change anything. It's the path that I took, what I chose to do. I thought it was what's best at the time. Not everyone can say they played on a Final Four team. Or played Big East basketball.

"A lot of people will say you should have done this or you should have done that. But if they were in the situation . . . I was 18 years old. You don't know as much. Anyone can second-guess. But I'm not doing that. I think I've had it good. And I'm older now. Hopefully, the last home game is a win. And we can go from there."

Wherever that might be, he can proceed with his head held high.

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