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March 16, 2013

Deja vu all over again

BROOKLYN, NY - The setting was different. So, too, is the vibe around this particular Temple team.

But for the second consecutive season, Chaz Williams and the Massachusetts Minutemen put an end to the Owls' conference championship hopes in the quarterfinal round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament.

Behind Williams' 28 points, some effective defense on Atlantic 10 Player of the Year Khalif Wyatt, a distinct rebounding advantage and a dagger of a three-pointer by forward Terrell Vinson in the game's final minute, sixth-seeded UMass dealt No. 3 seed Temple a 79-74 loss Friday night at the Barclays Center.

The Owls saw their seven-game win streak, which started against the Minutemen up in Amherst last month, come to an end. They will take a 23-9 record into Selection Sunday and await their NCAA Tournament fate. UMass improved to 21-10 and will face No. 2 seed VCU in the A-10 Tournament semifinals Saturday.

Barring any unforeseen circumstances, Temple should get its sixth-straight NCAA Tournament bid when the brackets are revealed Sunday. The Owls finished third in the A-10 regular-season standings and owned an RPI of 36 according to CBSSports.com's RPI rankings heading into Friday night's game, but Temple coach Fran Dunphy and his players said they will assume nothing over the next 48 hours.

"I guess it's up in the air," said Wyatt, who struggled through a 4 of 19 shooting night and 2 of 11 from three-point range. "It's nothing we can really control over these next two days. We just want to go back to Philly, get some rest and wait for Sunday - and hope that our name gets called."

Temple lost by six to UMass in an A-10 Tournament quarterfinal game last March in the tournament's last year at Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall, and Williams had 20 points and 10 assists that afternoon. Friday night in Brooklyn, the ultra-quick 5-foot-9 point guard had 16 of his 28 points in the second half, including eight in a row at one point. He was also part of the defensive effort, along with backcourt mate Freddie Riley, that frustrated Wyatt.

"I think they did a really good job defending me," Wyatt said. "I think I still had some good looks but just couldn't put it in. They're a pretty good defensive team. They're long and they're athletic. They're strong and they play hard, so I just give them a lot of credit for playing pretty solid defense."

Despite his struggles, Wyatt hit a three-pointer with 56 seconds left to get Temple within a bucket at 73-71. But out of an Owls' timeout, Vinson swished a three-pointer from the right wing with 26 seconds to go that gave UMass a commanding, 76-71 advantage. Wyatt missed a three at the other end, but Temple forward Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson later appeared to force a jump ball that would have given the Owls some life, but the call didn't go Temple's way.

"I thought I had my hand on the ball and I felt that they called a jump ball - or he stepped out of bounds - but he said inadvertent whistle," Hollis-Jefferson said of the call made by official Gary Prager, "so there's nothing we could do about that."

After he was fouled by Temple's Jake O'Brien, UMass' Sampson Carter hit 1 of 2 from the free-throw line with 16 seconds left, Temple's Will Cummings hit a three eight seconds later, but Cady LaLanne threw down a dunk to put the game on ice.

Hollis-Jefferson's stellar effort of 17 points, nine rebounds (including six on the offensive glass), seven assists, three steals and no turnovers in 38 minutes wasn't enough on a night in which he got virtually no help in the frontcourt. Sophomore forward Anthony Lee, who sustained a hip pointer injury Feb. 28 that forced him to miss a game, still doesn't look right. The 6-9 Lee played just 16 minutes Friday, largely due to foul trouble, and had twice as many fouls (four) as points (two) and grabbed just two rebounds.

"I don't think he's feeling 100 percent at this point," Dunphy said of Lee, who came into the game averaging 10.3 points and 7.1 rebounds, "but we need Anthony. We need him to get to be the player he was earlier in the season."

Speaking of rebounds, UMass dominated Temple on the glass to the tune of 40-23 and did it without a single player reaching double-digit rebounds. Owls senior forward Scootie Randall scored 12 points but came up with just two rebounds, which was two fewer than Wyatt's four.

So although Wyatt struggled, Williams shined and Vinson inserted the dagger with his late three-pointer, the game was essentially lost there in the rebounding disparity. There was that - and the fact that Temple only got 17 points off 19 UMass turnovers. In fact, the Minutemen turned it 12 times in the first half, but the Owls got just 11 points off those turnovers.

In a game that featured six ties and 15 lead changes, neither team led by more than six, with UMass getting that six-point lead with 17 seconds left. Temple's five-point second-half lead came courtesy of a Hollis-Jefferson putback with 9:39 left and gave the Owls a 60-55 advantage. Vinson responded with two free throws 22 seconds later, and then Williams scored UMass' next eight points, including a layup that put the Minutemen ahead for good at 65-64 with 5:22 to go.

Last season, UMass got a pretty good look at a Temple team that was shaky at best down the stretch. The Owls lost two of their last four before their season came to a crashing thud in an opening-round NCAA Tournament loss to South Florida in Nashville. The two losses before the tournament collapse came to Saint Joseph's and then the Minutemen in Atlantic City, and Temple needed overtime to eek out a two-point win over UMass at the Liacouras Center a little more than a week before they lost to the Minutemen in the A-10 Tournament.

This season, although no one will confuse the Owls with a defensive juggernaut (UMass shot 49 percent overall Friday night and 54.5 percent in the second half), Temple righted the ship with its seven-game win streak after a miserable one-point loss to Duquesne on Valentine's Day.

Friday's loss shows Temple's rebounding needs to get better, Lee needs to get better, and the Owls need to create better scoring chances when they force close to 20 turnovers in a game. All that stuff will of course be critical if Temple wants to make that NCAA Tournament run that has eluded it during Dunphy's tenure on North Broad Street.

Dunphy was asked if the conclusion of this regular season felt different than last year's regular season, when something just didn't feel right and then certainly didn't look right when Temple lost in the Big Dance.

"I appreciate the question and, yeah, I have thought about that," Dunphy admitted, "and I think we're in a little better position than we were last year. We were reeling a little bit last year. We just hope we get a chance to play next week and see what we can do."

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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