NEW YORK - In a span of less than 72 hours, Temple revived its basketball season Saturday - and the Owls did it against the nation's No. 3 team and in America's most storied basketball venue to boot.
Three days after losing and playing its worst game of the season, Temple got a career-high 33 points from senior guard Khalif Wyatt and 21 points from sophomore center Anthony Lee to knock off third-ranked Syracuse, 83-79, at Madison Square Garden in the marquee game of the Chevrolet Gotham Classic.
It was only a few days ago that the Owls were hanging their heads after leaving their home floor thanks to a 10-point loss to Canisius before a sparse crowd at the Liacouras Center. But as the Owls made their way to the locker room Saturday, the vibe and the atmosphere - a crowd of 12,648 for a nationally-televised game on ESPN2 - represented a complete 180-degree turn.
The 6-foot-9 Lee, whose yeoman-like effort yielded his own career high scoring total on 5 of 10 shooting and an equally-important 11 of 14 from the free-throw line, was grinning from ear to ear, bouncing on his tired feet as he high-fived several Cherry and White faithful from a fan base traveled remarkably well to the Garden just three days before Christmas. Wyatt, who survived five turnovers and an 8 of 17 shooting performance by going a perfect 15-for-15 from the free-throw line, nodded his head and flashed a sly grin that conveyed equal parts exhilaration and vindication.
In the loss to Canisius, Wyatt and fellow senior Scootie Randall, who missed 11 three-pointers, were roasted for their poor shooing and equally-poor decision making. Saturday, Wyatt was locked in at the foul line and hit six of his free throws in the game's final minute. And although Randall scored just six points in the win, they came on two critical three-pointers in the second half. The first, which came at the 9:56 mark of the second half, put Temple ahead for good at 62-59, and the second capped off an 11-2 run and put the Owls ahead by 70-62 with 7:51 remaining.
Before Saturday, Temple was an eight-win team with no identity and no quality victories on its resume. Now the Owls are a 9-2 ball club with that signature nonconference win that helps punch your NCAA Tournament ticket in March.
In dealing Syracuse (10-1) its first loss of the season, Temple has now notched its fifth win over a top-10 program in as many seasons. The Owls beat No. 8 Tennessee in 2008, No. 3 Villanova in 2009, No. 9 Georgetown in 2010 and No. 5 Duke in 2011.
Those previous four wins were home games for Temple, with last season's win over Duke coming at the Wells Fargo Center. Saturday's victory will go down as a neutral-site win, but it came on a court that's been a home away from home for Syracuse.
The Orange, by the way, had won their last 52 regular-season, nonconference games.
Fran Dunphy's team needed this one badly, and the veteran coach acknowledged his team perhaps needed to hit rock bottom before it could feel Saturday's exuberance.
"Every game is so critical in your development," Dunphy said. "And the reality is, I don't know that we would have won today had we not lost on Wednesday, to be quite frank. In that game, we got a little bit of a come-uppance against Canisius; they played better than we did and deserved to win the game, but I think our kids understood the task at hand today."
They certainly did.
Syracuse came into Saturday undefeated and was beating its opponents by an average of more than 25 points per game while holding them to 34.5 percent shooting, and Orange sophomore point guard Michael Carter-Williams was leading the nation in assists with an average of 10.7 per game.
While Temple shot just 39 percent (23 of 59), it began to crack Syracuse's 2-3 zone by either working the ball to a player like senior forward Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson (six points, 10 rebounds, three assists) at the top of the key and kicking it out to open shooters or by working it down steadily to Lee. Hitting 29 of 36 from the free-throw line was of course huge, as was outrebounding the Orange, 44-41.
"It's not easy to do," Dunphy said of playing against Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim's zone. "I think we tried a lot of different combinations over the last few days to try to get some post players to flash to the foul line and make plays from there. I thought Rahlir did a really good job for the most part today, saw some guys inside. I thought he had a couple of great kick-outs for threes as well.
"But I think in order for us to win the game, everybody's got to sort of do their job, and I thought we managed the game well from our offensive end."
Temple also made things tough for Carter-Williams, who continues to play despite reports of an alleged shoplifting incident at a local Lord & Taylor department store back on Dec. 9, and the Orange made things hard on themselves at the foul line by hitting just 19 of 34 free-throw attempts. The Owls held Carter-Williams, who's on the Naismith Award watch list and had been playing like a potential NBA lottery pick, to a paltry 3 of 17 shooting from the floor, including 0-for-5 from beyond the arc, and instead survived 25 points from junior forward C.J. Fair, who also chipped in seven boards and shot a perfect 8-for-8 from the foul line.
Behind Wyatt's 20 first-half points, Lee's seven points, five rebounds and two blocks and eight off the bench from forward Jake O'Brien, the Owls battled back from a 10-point deficit to tie the game and trailed by just two, 40-38, at halftime.
"He was spectacular," Dunphy said of Wyatt. "In the first half, he made so many great plays. In the second half, he obviously made every foul shot he took. He made some really good plays when we were struggling to score, and that was the only way we were going to stay in the game - with Khalif making plays.
At the media timeout at the 11:39 mark of the first half, the Orange were shooting 8 of 12 from the floor while the Owls were hitting at a 2 of 11 clip, but Temple was only trailing by 17-12 because it was chipping away at Syracuse's zone and hit 7 of its 8 free-throw attempts. The Orange took their 10-point first-half lead on a putback by forward Rakeem Christmas before O'Brien reeled off eight points in a 10-2 Temple run that got the Owls within 26-24 with 7:36 left in the first half.
After falling behind by 35-31 on a Brandon Triche layup, a Wyatt floater and two Lee free throws tied the game at 35-35 with 2:01 left before intermission. After Syracuse reeled off the next five points, Wyatt hit his second trey of the half, and Lee rejected a Carter-Williams shot into the Temple band.
All this came in a half when Syracuse scored 16 points off eight Temple turnovers, as the Owls tried several times unsuccessfully to get backdoor cuts against the Orange zone. Temple outrebounded Syracuse by 21-18 in the first half and eventually shot 40 percent after starting at that 2 of 11 pace.
Temple opened up the second half on that 13-2 run to grab a 51-42 lead, its largest of the game, with 15:24 left to play, but Syracuse responded with a 13-4 run to tie the game at 55-55 less than four minutes later. After Randall's two second-half treys put the Owls ahead for good and eventually by eight, the Orange hung around and trimmed Temple's lead to a point with 1:20 to go when Carter-Williams hit 1 of 2 from the line.
From there, Temple shot 11 of 14 from the free-throw line to seal off the win.
Freshman guard Quenton DeCosey played a career-high 22 minutes and scored six points, three of which came on a trey that pushed Temple's lead back out to four with a little more than nine minutes left. DeCosey made things a little interesting by missing a pair of free throws with 27 seconds left and another with 8.7 remaining, but he hit the second shot from the line to make it a two-possession game and put Syracuse away.
Just as he did last year against Duke and future lottery pick Austin Rivers, Wyatt rose to the challenge against a top-5 team and played like the best guard on the floor Saturday. And doing it at Madison Square Garden made it extra sweet.
"They call it the Mecca of basketball," Wyatt said in the locker room after the game.
More important was the task of shaking off Wednesday's disappointment and getting a win that could help Temple define its season.
"I made some big shots and made some free throws," Wyatt said. "I just wanted to compete - that's all I wanted to do. I wanted to show the world that Temple is a good program and I wanted to broadcast that to the world."
The national already knew about Wyatt, and now they know more about Lee, who, like Wyatt, picked the biggest of stages to have the biggest game of his young career. Against a front line of Fair (6-8, 215 pounds), DaJuan Coleman (6-9, 288) and Christmas (6-9, 242), Lee played smart, hard basketball to stay on the floor for 38 minutes and collected nine rebounds - including five on the offensive end - and two blocks to go with his career-high 21 points.
"I knew that I had to get rebounds and I knew I had to be a monster on the block," said Lee, who has been getting over a respiratory infection. "In the first half, I saw so many openings in the zone and I was telling them to lob it over. We didn't necessarily do that at first; I got the lobs on fast breaks. … And when I caught the ball, I just knew I could score over them. And when I did get the ball, I knew they were fouling me and trying to get in my face, so I had to go up strong and kept knocking down free throws, so that helped."
"This victory," Lee added, "basically says if we play to our potential and capability, we can go very far in the (NCAA) tournament. I know that's what we want to do."
Now, Lee said, the key is to not let down in home games against Detroit and Bowling Green on Dec. 28 and Dec. 30, respectfully, before the Owls play at Kansas Jan. 6.
"That's what our mind set has to be," Lee said. "We have to be a fired-up team, play excited - even at home games - and play with energy. You guys see more excitement in us when we play big teams than when we're at home, and I think that needs to be something that carries on. We need to play that way all the time so we can make that run and not just win the A-10 but win games in the tournament as well."
Putbacks: Anthony Lee's interview produced a couple of humorous moments as well, including one when he said, "I was playing like Dwight Howard today."
And when Lee was told by a reporter that Temple had just beaten the No. 3 team in the country, Lee raised an eyebrow.
"Oh, they were No. 3?" Lee asked. "No. 3? I thought they were No. 10. That's really good. I told somebody else they were No. 10. That's what I thought."