Bob Ford: Owls picking up the pieces of a bad loss

Posted: March 18, 2012

NASHVILLE - A basketball never sounds more hollow than when it stops bouncing, and it was that sudden silence that found the Temple Owls after their opening game of the NCAA tournament late Friday night.

Across the street from the Country Music Hall of Fame, the 58-44 loss to the University of South Florida told a sad story of heartbreak and betrayal. The rim was a liar, the ball was cheating and the stat sheet was drunk. Maybe someone would even get shot, but if it was by either of these teams, it would probably be a miss.

Temple, a No. 5 seed in the tournament, ranked much of the season among the nation's elite, managed to lose a game in which the opposition made 11 percent of its attempts in the opening half. That's not easy. (Nor is it easy to be a team in the NCAA tournament that shoots 11 percent in a half, but USF managed the trick by missing 22 straight shots in one stretch. That made it easier.)

"Certainly we should have had a bigger lead in the first half, holding them to the shooting percentage they had," Fran Dunphy said as he stood outside the hushed Owls locker room after the game. "We didn't run our offense as well as we needed to. We had a couple of open looks, but it just didn't work for us."

Nothing much did in the second half as the Owls lost their poise with the ball, and point guard Juan Fernandez, drifting into foul trouble, couldn't be as aggressive against Anthony Collins, his USF counterpart. When South Florida began to make outside shots in bunches, a 21-21 tie became a 39-25 runaway in the space of just over five minutes.

The Owls finally dropped some tries of their own and a Ramone Moore three-pointer made it a three-point game late in the going, but Victor Rudd of USF banked in a three with the shot clock about to expire and, well, as Dunphy said, "That was a telling shot for us."

It was telling Temple that this tournament wasn't going to last long for the Owls. Perhaps that's no surprise. Temple hasn't played tightly for two weeks and the initial portion of the second half was a mirror of the same stretch against Massachusetts that knocked the Owls from their opening game of the Atlantic Ten tournament.

Still, it was a very bad loss, worse than the 2010 NCAA loss to Cornell, also a 5- vs. 12-seed matchup, but one that felt like a setup. Cornell had a very strong team and the Owls were caught between the Dionte Christmas years and the slow maturation of the players who took part in their last game on Friday night as seniors.

Dunphy is 1-5 in the NCAA tournament since taking over Temple, and 1-2 as the favored seed. Neither is a good number, but the nature of the tournament doesn't lend its results to such easy analysis. To advance, teams not only have to play well, but they have to be lucky. All the work and preparation of a 30-odd game season comes down to a stray bounce off the rim or a dribble off the foot sometimes. Coaches study these frayed edges, trying to understand how the binding could let go, but there is never a satisfying explanation.

Temple had the misfortune to be neither good nor lucky against South Florida, and Dunphy picked at the edges of this game afterward, particularly the end of the first half when the Owls should have taken control of the game but let an 11-point lead dwindle to four by halftime.

"It was pulling teeth. Khalif [Wyatt] had a shot at the rim that didn't go and there was a pass that Micheal Eric couldn't handle, that should have been a bounce pass, maybe," Dunphy said. "They got back into it at the foul line, which is the only way they were scoring. And the intentional foul gave them a lift."

Wyatt was whistled for an intentional foul on a loose ball as the Owls were trying to corral a defensive rebound, still holding a nine-point lead. South Florida made the two foul shots and then hit a three-pointer as they retained possession. That five-point swing sent the two teams into the halftime locker rooms with very different attitudes.

The foul was called on Wyatt for grabbing an opponent's jersey to hold him back. An official told Dunphy the jersey was yanked two feet away from the body of its occupant.

"I can't say that I exactly saw that," Dunphy said.

Not that it matters now, or not that the Owls didn't have ample opportunity to overcome the adversity. Teams advancing in the NCAA tournament do that sort of thing. Teams left to wonder about this shot or that whistle go home.

Temple comes back next season without starters Fernandez, Moore and Eric, so the return road to the NCAA's will be a tough one. After that, the Owls will be in the Big East, a sharp sword that cuts two ways. Being a member gets you extra tournament consideration, but it also gets you a schedule that can embarrass a program.

South Florida, which was 3-15 in the Big East a year ago, can attest to that side of the knife. The Bulls turned it around this season, though, and they have a very nice chance to make the Sweet 16 in Sunday's 12- vs. 13-seed matchup against Ohio.

Temple would like to be in that position, but wishing doesn't make it so. Only winning does. They know that song here in Nashville, and the Owls aren't the first ones to leave town with regret in their bags and the haunting memory of a great date that somehow ended badly.

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