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March 10, 2013With a little less than three minutes to play in the first half of Sunday's regular-season finale at the Liacouras Center, Temple was trailing No. 21 VCU by 14 points -- havoc and all.
And there was a lot on the line, too. With a win, the Owls would lock up third place in the Atlantic 10 regular season standings, a first-round bye in this week's conference tournament and probably the program's sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament bid.
But all of that stuff seemed half a world away at that point. Temple wasn't making shots, VCU wasn't missing them, and things just didn't look so great.
But as Owls coach Fran Dunphy spoke to his team during that media timeout, he felt fine.
"We got rocked a little bit," Dunphy said, pointing to VCU's stretch of 18-straight first-half points. "We were punched right in the forehead. But we just talked about the fact that they made their run now, and I feel good about where we are. Not all that thrilled that we were down (14) points, but I felt like we had a chance to gather ourselves."
That's just what his team did.
After trailing by as many as 16 points in the first half, Temple pulled off a remarkable turnaround, forging a lead that grew as large as 17 points in the second half before finishing off an 84-76 win over VCU that gave the Owls their seventh win in a row, the No. 3 seed in the A-10 Tournament, and another resume-building victory that should vault the program into its sixth-straight NCAA Tournament.
Temple, which improved to 23-8 overall and 11-5 in the A-10, will play a 9 p.m. game Friday night at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn against the winner of the opening-round contest between No. 6 seed Massachusetts and No. 11 seed George Washington. No. 16 Saint Louis, a team the Owls beat by 10 back in January, claimed the A-10 regular-season championship and the tournament's top seed, and VCU will have the No. 2 seed. La Salle, which also finished at 11-5 in the league, gets the fourth seed and the last of the four first-round byes.
No matter what happens in Brooklyn, one would have to think Temple has done enough to advance to the Big Dance. The Owls entered Sunday's game with an RPI of 44 according to CBSSports.com bracketologist Jerry Palm, who had Temple projected as a No. 11 seed. Now the Owls have two wins over top-25 teams, including a December win over then-No. 3 Syracuse, and victories over Saint Louis and at Villanova.
Dunphy was his typical cautious self when asked about the matter - "That's for someone else to decide," he said, in part - but Owls guard Khalif Wyatt, who basically shored up the A-10 Player of the Year award by dropping a game-high 30 points, four assists and four steals, thinks his team deserves a spot.
"I mean, it's not up to us," said Wyatt, who shot 13 of 16 from the free-throw line to help overcome a 1 of 8 mark from three-point range, "but I would like to think so. We've still got a lot of basketball to play. We've got to go to Brooklyn on Friday and try to keep winning games and take it one game at a time and let the committee do their job."
There's that old clich?hat basketball is a game of runs and Sunday's contest gave it some credence. Temple scored the game's first seven points before VCU (24-7, 12-4 A-10) used an 18-0 run to turn a 12-3 deficit into a 21-12 lead. The Rams hit eight straight shots during that stretch and did not miss.
Then the Owls closed out the first half on an 11-0 run to pull within five at halftime before opening up the second half on a 17-7 run. Jake O'Brien, the 6-foot-9 forward who has made all the difference in the world for Temple with his outside shooting after transferring to North Broad Street over the summer from Boston University, put the Owls ahead to stay at 51-48 with a three-pointer, one of five he hit on the day, with 14:40 remaining. It represented Temple's first lead since the 14:43 mark of the first half when the Owls held a slim, 12-10, advantage.
"Coach Dunph really emphasized playing with poise in that type of situation," said O'Brien, who scored 19 points in 29 minutes and was one of five Temple seniors honored before the game. "Obviously we dug ourselves a hole, but we've been in positions like that before, and I think it helps that we have a veteran group with guys that have been there before. We just played under control and played our game. We were able to go on a run and ultimately win."
After VCU couldn't miss in the first half and shot 53.1 percent, the Rams cooled off to the tune of 38.7 percent shooting. Forward Juvontae Reddic hurt Temple to the tune of 20 points and nine rebounds. Fellow forward Treveon Graham added 17 points and five assists while Melvin Johnson chipped in 13 points with the help of a perfect 3-of-3 performance from three-point range. Beyond that, the Owls held senior guard Troy Daniels, who came into the game with an A-10-best 105 three-pointers, to just two threes and six points, half his average.
Most important was the fact that Temple handled VCU's 'havoc' defense, which involves the Rams pressing after every made basket and even sometimes after dead balls. The Owls committed a manageable 13 turnovers, including just six in the first half - and two of those were unforced.
"I thought we handled it pretty good," Dunphy said of his team's response to VCU's press. "We had a couple of panic-mode passes in the first half. I don't think we came to the ball a couple times and we jumped up in the air a couple times. But for the most part, I think we watched enough film to see where there might be some opportunities to advance the basketball a little better than maybe we anticipated."
DiLeo got the start at point guard on Senior Day over regular starter Will Cummings, a sophomore. DiLeo turned the ball over just once in 18 minutes and chipped in six points, an assist and a key second-half steal, and Cummings continued his string of strong play with 13 points and five assists in 28 minutes. Randall added 13 points, nine rebounds, a block and a steal while logging 37 minutes, more than anyone else on the team.
"Let's call it like it is," said VCU coach Shaka Smart, who took his team to the 2011 Final Four. "Temple, coming into this game, wanted this game really, really bad. They had a lot on the line. Senior Day, NCAA Tournament talk, a bye in the A-10 Tournament, and they played with that level of urgency - and we did not match that level of urgency, which is extremely disappointing, and it's something we will address moving forward as coaches and players."
A lot of this would have been hard to fathom back on Valentine's Day after Temple had dropped to 16-8 courtesy of a bad, one-point loss to a Duquesne team that had not won since December. But there was Dunphy, feeling good about his team on Sunday even as it was trailing by 14 with halftime fast approaching.
Dunphy was asked if he would have felt great about his team's chances down 14 back in mid-February, when his team was making the term consistently inconsistent its trademark.
"I think it's a great question, and if I'm being honest with you and myself, probably not," Dunphy admitted, "because we aren't who we are today. We have developed this resiliency and I hope we can continue it, but there was a sense that you got from these guys that there was no panic in them, and it wasn't right for me to panic as well. There's a lot of feeding off of the players that coaches do, and hopefully there's some vice versa in that as well."
It would certainly appear so.
OwlScoop.com editor John Di Carlo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @OwlScoop_com or @jdicarlo.