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January 23, 2013You know that maddening version of Temple's basketball team that tends to play up and down to the level of its competition?
It was in full character Wednesday night at the Liacouras Center, and it nearly lost to a three-win Penn team that was playing its eighth consecutive game without its best player.
At the end of the night, after the Quakers led by as many as nine points more than three minutes into the second half, players like Khalif Wyatt, Anthony Lee and TJ DiLeo saved the Owls from themselves and helped Temple lock down a 76-69 win over Penn that improved the team to 13-5 overall and 2-0 in the Big 5.
But improved might be too kind a term to describe what the Owls did.
Quakers coach Jerome Allen's club has been without its leading scorer and rebounder in forward Fran Dougherty, who had been averaging nearly 16 points and nine rebounds before coming down with mononucleosis. But Penn (3-15) led by a bucket at halftime, grabbed that nine-point lead on a pair of free throws from junior guard Miles Cartwright (team-high 21 points), and was even clinging to a one-point lead with less than six minutes to go.
Simply put, an undermanned team with less pure talent was playing harder and better than Temple, which still looked lost in the aftermath of Saturday's loss to St. Bonaventure.
But along the way, Wyatt, DiLeo and Lee started to wake up.
DiLeo, a fifth-year reserve guard who doesn't always look for his shot, gave Temple its first lead since the 5-minute mark of the first half when he drained a three-pointer to push the Owls ahead by 57-56 with 8:52 left to play, and his second trey of the night tied the game up almost two minutes later at 61-61 after Penn had forged ahead again.
Wyatt, who scored 21 of his game-high 26 points in the second half, put Temple back ahead for good on his fourth and final three-pointer of the night with 5:25 remaining and added two more free throws to make it a four-point cushion. Lee, who gave the Owls 16 points on 6 of 9 shooting to go with nine rebounds in 32 minutes despite four fouls, knocked down a pair of foul shots, and senior forward Jake O'Brien, who started for an injured Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson and scored 14 points in 35 minutes, capped that 8-0 game-winning run with a baseline jumper to provide a 72-64 lead with a little more than three minutes to go.
Penn never got closer than five the rest of the way, and Temple averted what would have been a bad loss.
But there are, to be sure, major concerns moving forward as the Owls prepare to play Saturday at No. 9 Butler, which got upset Wednesday night at LaSalle but is expected to have its best player and leading scorer, Rotnei Clarke, back in time to play Temple.
Most of the Owls' woes have been coming at the defensive end, where they just haven't been all that good since Lavoy Allen moved on to the NBA prior to last season. Temple was allowing opponents to shoot 41.6 percent heading into Wednesday's game, and Penn shot 45.3 percent Wednesday night, four percentage points better than it usually does.
And senior forward Scootie Randall, the same player that dropped 31 points in the season opener, struggled for much of the game before a small late burst. At one point, the 6-foot-6 swingman had more fouls (three) than points (two) before finishing with six points, eight rebounds, three assists and three steals in 34 minutes.
There were anxious moments, warts and blemishes all over this win, but Dunphy said he sees a little bit of a sliver of something that encouraged him.
"There's a stretch that pretty much every team goes through and maybe it's ours," Dunphy said. "What's happening now is we're inconsistent. We're not playing great basketball at this point. But there is a little bit of a ray of hope that I thought I saw tonight."
And that is?
"We ran our offense a little bit better. I thought Anthony was struggling in some parts and all of a sudden, he got it late in the game. I thought he was very good offensively on a couple of plays and rebounding the ball. But he can play better. I think we all can play better. I thought there might be corner being turned with Scootie as well. That's a critical thing for us as well."
Randall wanted very earnestly to be this team's leader this season after coming off surgery to repair torn meniscus cartilage, but his play has slumped. Wyatt, despite his mercurial and sometimes comical nature, has led more by example - by hitting the big shots in the big games and carrying the team on his back when necessary.
If he's out front gauging the temperature of his team, he was quite honest in the postgame press conference.
When he was asked by a reporter if he felt teams still feared playing Temple at the Liacouras Center, Wyatt shrugged.
"I mean, I don't think they have any reason to fear us," Wyatt admitted. "We're not playing that good. They don't have any reason to fear us. They want to win, too."
Wyatt said Saturday at Butler would be a different game, but will Temple reach the point when it treats every game the same and dictates the style of play to its opponent instead of the other way around?
"Yeah, definitely we've got to get more consistent on defense," Wyatt said. "But when I say it's a different game, the Penn game is over, so we've got a chance to go out there and play against Butler and try to put a better effort out there. We can't do nothing about tonight. We won, we didn't play our best game. We just want to put it behind us now.
"We'll just practice tomorrow and get better on defense, focus on details, get coached by Coach Dunphy. Just put it behind us and get ready for Butler."
If that really happens, then maybe Temple will have a chance to reprise some of the magic and stone-cold execution that allowed it to knock off then-No. 3 Syracuse at Madison Square Garden three days before Christmas. But if not, the Owls could get stuck in this wash, rinse, repeat cycle, and that's never a good way to approach February.
Putbacks: Freshman Quenton DeCosey and junior Dalton Pepper did not score in a combined 15 minutes off the bench. TJ DiLeo played 26 minutes and contributed six points, five rebounds, three assists, two steals and one turnover. Penn's bench, led by Patrick Lucas-Perry's 15 points, outscored Temple's, 27-6. Fran Dunphy said senior forward Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson is dealing with a knee injury and does not know if the 6-foot-6 forward will play Saturday at Butler.
Listen to the postgame comments from Temple's Khalif Wyatt and Anthony Lee, Owls coach Fran Dunphy and Penn coach Jerome Allen and Quakers guard Miles Cartwright.
Khalif Wyatt, Anthony Lee
Jerome Allen, Miles Carwright
OwlScoop.com editor John Di Carlo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @OwlScoop_com or @jdicarlo.