At the end of the day, Temple was able to hold off Wagner, 70-62, at the Liacouras Center Saturday afternoon because Owls guard Khalif Wyatt was better than anyone else on the floor and scored a game-high 26 points, including seven inside the game's last three minutes.
The good news for Temple coach Fran Dunphy and his players is that the Owls are off to a 5-0 start for the first time since the 1987-88 season, when what was arguably coach John Chaney's best team achieved a No. 1 ranking and a 32-2 record en route to advancing to the Elite Eight.
This current Temple team certainly isn't asking for or talking about such lofty comparisons or making much more of its undefeated start than it should and that's a good thing, because the Owls still have a lot of work to do before the schedule gets tougher in a hurry, starting with Wednesday's Big 5 game at Villanova and then a trip next Saturday to the IZOD Center in East Rutherford, NJ, to play No.2 Duke.
Wagner (2-4) jumped out to an eight-point lead inside the game's first five minutes before a 10-0 Temple run got the Owls back into the game. Wyatt put his team ahead for good at 14-13 on a layup at the 12:35 mark of the first half, and the 6-foot-4 senior guard also gave Temple a little bit of breathing room at the half with a nifty step-off move and long three pointer that gave way to a 34-28 lead at the intermission.
The Owls' lead eventually reached double digits twice, on a layup by senior forward Scootie Randall (10 points, nine rebounds) with 7:49 to go and on a layup by sophomore point guard Will Cummings with 5:18 left, and eventually ballooned to 11, but that came with 15 seconds left on a pair of three throws by guard TJ DiLeo.
Otherwise, Wagner stuck around the whole game because it outscored Temple in the paint by 30-24, outscored the Owls' bench by 25-16, and grabbed 15 offensive rebounds en route to outrebounding Temple by 42-30. Sophomore forward Anthony Lee, the closest thing the Owls have to a center right now, picked up his second foul less than three minutes into the game, battled foul trouble all afternoon and contributed just four points, a rebound and a steal in 12 minutes.
He did, however, make things count defensively when he was on the floor with three blocks, but Temple is a thin and different team up front without Lee on the floor. Dunphy has yet to play 6-10 freshman center Devontae Watson and substitutes 6-9 forward Jake O'Brien, who's more of a 'stretch four,' for Lee.
That's a thin margin for error moving forward, and Dunphy knows it and also knows his team needs to play much better next week.
"I thought they outworked us," Dunphy said of Wagner. "They played harder, played tougher, and they played better than us. That's a disappointment."
And if Wagner got 14 second-chance points Saturday, more formidable opponents could do more damage than that in the coming weeks.
"Fifteen offensive rebounds is just not acceptable," Dunphy said. "Am I happy sitting here after a win? Yeah, but we've got to do better. We've got a long way to go. It's a long, long season and we need to improve in a lot of areas."
Other than Wyatt's 26 points and Randall's 10, no other Temple player reached double figures in scoring, but Cummings played a mostly-sound game at the point, chipping in seven points, three assists, a block and just one turnover in 26 minutes. And with Lee off the floor for long stretches, O'Brien, a fifth-year player who transferred to Temple from Boston University for his final season of eligibility, played a season-high 23 minutes and chipped in eight points and a season-high five rebounds.
Wagner's best player, senior forward Jonathon Williams, had 15 points, three below his season average, and junior guard Kenneth Ortiz got 15 as well. The Seahawks stayed relatively close despite shooting just 39.7 percent overall, including 37.5 percent in the second half.
Randall and Wyatt did not seem as concerned as their coach, and Wyatt disagreed with a reporter's notion that the Owls sometimes seem to play down to the level of their competition.
"I wouldn't say we play down to the competition," Wyatt said. "I think the teams we play, they're not bad at all. They come and they play hard. They've got scholarship guys just like we do. They're not going to back down and just let us win."
Although the Owls are thinnest up front, 6-5 guard Quenton DeCosey continues to see more minutes than his freshman counterparts, Watson and 6-7 forward Daniel Dingle. After playing 10 minutes and scoring eight points in Wednesday's win at Buffalo, DeCosey played 10 more minutes Saturday and was a perfect 2-for-2 from three-point range to get six points.
At this early juncture of the season, DeCosey has lapped West Virginia transfer Dalton Pepper, who went scoreless in eight minutes and missed both shots he took Saturday, in terms of playing time, and he's also playing more minutes as a freshman than players like Randall and Wyatt ever did.
DeCosey, who played at St. Joseph High School in Metuchen, NJ, was a first-team all-state player as a senior and was arguably the second-best guard in the state behind McDonald's All-American and UCLA recruit Kyle Anderson, so it's not exactly a surprise to see him on the floor.
Then again, save for former Owls guard Juan Fernandez, Dunphy hasn't traditionally played freshman guards all that much at Temple, or during his time at Penn.
"Quenton is really talented and he's confident," Wyatt said. "In practice, he's going at whoever's guarding him and he doesn't back down. And especially when you're playing for Coach Dunphy, you've got to show him that you deserve it, especially this early in his career, and he's showing Coach Dunphy that he's ready to play some minutes."
So do Wyatt and Randall every tease DeCosey about getting some early minutes they never got when they were in his shoes?
"He's still carrying bags on the road," Wyatt said with a smile. "But he's going to be good, though."
"When we recruited him, the thing that we liked the most is that he can pretty much get to wherever he wants on the court," Dunphy said. "He did make two threes today, but it's not as easy as it looks. Before you can make them, you've got to get them and I think he's doing a good job of fading and spacing to where he knows how to play, and he knows how to get open.
"The other thing I think he's lending to us is that he's not making very many mistakes on the defensive end, so that's the thing that's kind of separating him from maybe other guys right now. He's a very good rebounder, he's got great length, he's a very good athlete, and so his future is bright."