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March 2, 2013

Will power

Khalif Wyatt said something two nights ago that was equally humorous and true.

"We don't blow teams out," the Atlantic 10's and Temple's leading scorer said. "That's not what we do."

Cue Saturday's A-10 game against an eight-win Rhode Island team.

With Rams guard Xavier Munford, the conference's second-leading scorer, on his way to pouring in a game-high 30 points, Rhode Island led by a point at halftime, later erased an 11-point Owls lead in the second half and was still within a point with less than three minutes to go.

But Temple's more collective effort, which included Wyatt's team-high 24 points, Jake O'Brien's double-double of 16 points and 10 rebounds, and Will Cummings' career-high 15 points, was enough to net the Owls a 76-70 win, their fifth in a row, before a lively crowd of 9,493 fans that packed the Liacouras Center for mascot Hooter's birthday.

And the basketball, too.

Temple improved to 21-8 overall and 9-5 in the A-10 and moved into a tie for fourth place in the league with Butler, although the Bulldogs hold the tiebreaker there due to their Jan. 26 win over the Owls.

Nonetheless, Temple, which has regular-season games remaining at Fordham Wednesday and at home next Sunday against Virginia Commonwealth, still has an opportunity to finish in fourth place in the regular season standings and get a first-round bye in the A-10 Tournament in Brooklyn later this month.

The Owls came into the game with an RPI of 38 according to RealTimeRPI.com and look to be in good position to gain their sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament berth later this month, but Temple coach Fran Dunphy insisted his team doesn't let its mind go there.

"We never talk about it," Dunphy said. "There's nothing to talk about. What's to talk about is we've got three Rams in front of us. One was today, Fordham Rams on Wednesday, and the VCU Rams on Sunday. It's all we can think about. If we were undefeated so far at this point, then maybe we could say to ourselves, 'We're in.' But we have nothing other than Fordham to look forward to, and if it works out that we are fortunate enough to make it, then that's what it is."

Temple played Saturday without sophomore forward Anthony Lee, its leading rebounder, after he sustained a hip pointer injury in Thursday's win over Detroit. The 6-foot-9 O'Brien, who's more of a 'stretch four' than a power forward, started in his place and swiped those 10 rebounds while also contributing three blocks and a steal in 35 minutes. And senior forward Scootie Randall scored 10 of his 15 points in the first half and also helped on the glass with eight rebounds, including four on the offensive end.

And Wyatt, as he usually does, played well in crunch time, getting 16 of his points in the second half and knocking down 9 of 11 free throws.

But Cummings, a 6-2 sophomore who came into the game averaging just 5.5 points and 22.7 minutes per game, was the x-factor Saturday. He shot 6 of 7 from the floor, including a rare 2 of 3 from three-point range (he came into the game having hit just nine threes all season), and he also recorded a game-high four steals.

What Cummings gives Temple that no other guard on the roster does is the ability to penetrate and get to the rim in a hurry.

"Just seeing openings and taking advantage of it and not thinking twice about it and reacting when the opening comes open," is what Cummings said when asked about what got things going for him. "Just playing basketball how I learned to play basketball when I was younger."

Cummings' 15 points were more than he had in the past three games combined, and his 33 minutes were more than he played in the past two games.

"He adds another scorer for us that, in some games, is desperately needed," Dunphy said. "His two threes were very important for us. He also took it to the basket a couple of times. I'm sure he's disappointed with his foul shooting (1-for-5) and he'll continue to work hard at that, but just to get him to the line for five foul (shots) is important for us."

Cummings was also part of the effort that held Munford to 11 second-half points after he got 19 in the first half.

"He's certainly our fastest guy," Dunphy said, "and maybe our best athlete, in all honesty. So for him to get loose balls and do a couple of those things that get you an extra possession or save you one, it's really important. I thought he was terrific today."

Munford started to slow down when he picked up a technical foul with 12 minutes, 47 seconds left, even though an offensive foul had been called on Wyatt on the play. That was part of a 10-0 Owls run that gave them that 11-point lead at 62-51 with 10:31 remaining. Munford then picked up his fourth foul at the 6:30 mark with Temple holding a slim, two-point lead at 64-62.

Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley, who seemed intent on renting space on the floor as opposed to staying on the bench, picked up a technical foul 51 seconds after Munford got his.

After two free throws by Rams guard Andre Malone got Rhode Island within a point at 71-70 with 2:20 remaining, but those foul shots represented the Rams' last points of the day. O'Brien scored on a tip-in 18 seconds later, and Temple then forced missed shots by Munford and Nikola Malesevic before Wyatt hit two free throws with 25 seconds left to push the Owls' lead to five.

Defensively, the numbers still didn't look great for Temple, which allowed Rhode Island to shoot 50 percent in the first half, including 7 of 12 from three-point range. But the Rams were a more pedestrian 40.7 percent in the second half, and some of that came even with Munford hitting some tough, contested shots or by driving away from the rim and then floating in a shot off the glass.

"Right now we have to go game by game and, as I've said a number of times, possession by possession," Dunphy said. "It got very, very tight today and luckily we found a way to get more points than Rhode Island, but we sure are in need of being more consistent on the defensive end."

Continued solid play from Randall and O'Brien could be slivers of hope for a Temple team that has too often had to rely upon the heroics of Wyatt. Randall, after slumping for significant stretches of the season, has now averaged 15.4 points per game during the Owls' five-game winning streak.

Adding Cummings' ability to get to the rim and score to the equation could make Temple a more complete team at just the right time.

"We need him to play extremely well all the time," Dunphy said.

OwlScoop.com editor John Di Carlo can be reached at jgdicarlo@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @OwlScoop_com or @jdicarlo.


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