Both La Salle and Temple show they belong

MICHAEL BRYANT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Temple's Khalif Wyatt puts up a shot in the paint as La Salle's Ramon Galloway defends in second half.
MICHAEL BRYANT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Temple's Khalif Wyatt puts up a shot in the paint as La Salle's Ramon Galloway defends in second half.
Posted: February 22, 2013

IF, IN FACT, the NCAA selection committee determines that only one - Temple or La Salle - may play in the greatest tournament in sports, March will be poorer for it.

Perhaps the country's greatest enigma, Temple on Thursday night somehow managed to blow out La Salle twice, in the same game.

Perhaps possessed of the most entertaining backcourt in college hoops, La Salle somehow both shrank from the program's biggest moment in 2 decades . . . and proved it belongs among the nation's finest.

Temple won, 82-74, and therefore kept alive its chances to make a sixth straight NCAA Tournament. Three three-pointers from La Salle in the last 92 seconds made the score more palatable, but Temple led by as many as 22 in the second half, and by 18 with 1:44 to play, and they missed seven layups in the first half.

The loss left La Salle at 18-7 and proclaiming Temple's excellence.

"They were terrific!" said Dr. John Giannini, La Salle's charismatic and expressive coach, of losing to a perennial tourney team on its home court. "This is not a bad loss!"

Well, yes, it was. La Salle hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament since 1992. La Salle does not get the benefit of the doubt.

Temple, at 18-8, is unranked. The Owls can play well - they upset Syracuse when the Orange was No. 3 in the country - but they can play poorly, too.

They proved that when La Salle's backcourt decided to play aggressively, and cut the 22-point lead to nine, with an endless 9:10 to play. Temple had no answer for that, and, quickly, its losses to Canisius, Saint Joseph's and Duquesne became more logical.

Then 6-4 guard Khalif Wyatt, the city's most skilled and best-fed player, was given the chance to show why he is that.

"It's the most excited I've been to play in a game," said Wyatt, a senior.

Given the ball and freedom by coach Fran Dunphy, Wyatt, the leading scorer in the Atlantic 10, took over. One sweet pass and two jumpers moved the lead back to 15, and, for all intents, La Salle, exhausted, was finished.

But, hopefully, not done.

The selection committee would be foolish to exclude La Salle from its showcase event. The tournament is guard-driven the first two weekends.

It would be criminal to deny the world a look at Ramon Galloway's athleticism, at Tyreek Duren's cool, at Tyrone Garland's Predator braids.

Besides, any chance to get the Giannini Grimace into an NCAA video collage is worth excluding a team like Virginia. The ACC stinks this year, anyway.

Similarly, should Temple stumble, as well could happen Sunday in Charlotte, there might not be a deserved showcase for Wyatt, which rhymes with diet, which might be the only thing that keeps him out of the NBA. He's that smooth.

Wyatt is a major reason why Temple is excellent theater, but not the only reason. Acerbic and fearless, Dunphy, a La Salle product who coached Penn back to relevance, has replaced Temple legend John Chaney as the trumpet of honesty in the city.

Dunphy realizes he has a quirky, dangerous team.

"I hope we've seen the light . . . We survived tonight," Dunphy said. "Now, we move on."

With a fun cast of characters.

They have 6-9 junior Jake O'Brien, a sweet stroker who defies physics; he looks like he's about to fall apart every time he touches the ball. Or the court, for that matter. But he can play; 10 points in 16 minutes Thursday night.

They have Scootie Randall, the 6-6 swingman who can score 15 and grab 10 boards - Thursday's work - as easily as he can sabotage a game: Against Canisius he shot 3-for-16, missed 11 of 12 three-pointers, only snagged four boards.

If, as Giannini insisted, this was not a bad loss, his team has had enough of those to warrant exclusion. Ask Central Connecticut and Bucknell.

Thursday night wasn't the first time the Explorers retreated from the Big Moment, either.

They followed wins over top-20 Butler and VCU with a home loss to UMass.

They rebounded with a four-win run, including an underappreciated victory at St. Bonaventure, before this disappointment.

And, yes, it was a crushing disappointment. So much so that Giannini refused to allow his players to be interviewed. Like Giannini, they probably had no answers.

Duren picked up two quick fouls and played only half of the first period, but he, like Galloway, was ineffective for much of the game, anyway.

If nothing else comes from this season - if Thursday helps erode La Salle's credibility - then, tied with Temple at 3-1 in the Big 5, they at least have a share of the full round-robin City Series title for the first time since winning it outright in 1990, before Duren and Galloway were born.

Giannini, in his ninth season, created something special from this group; something worth seeing.

Honestly, the Explorers probably control that eventuality. They can win at Rhode Island and St. Louis and they can handle Duquesne and George Washington at home, and they can win two games in the Atlantic 10 Tournament; surely, three tourney wins would be plenty.

By the same token, this win did not secure anything for Temple. Their NCAA Tournament began last week, after a Valentine's Day lost to Duquesne. They beat UMass, and now La Salle, and, with the emergence of X-factor forward Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson, who had a career-high 18 rebounds, they might be the best team in the city.

For the third time this season, in a crucial moment, Hollis-Jefferson collected double-digit rebounds; he did it against Syracuse and UMass, too. His seven offensive boards matched La Salle's team total.

He scored a career-high 23 points, too, and he made a few baseline jump shots.

He is just the sort of high-character chap the NCAA loves to promote, a hard worker enjoying a senior swan song that, set to the right music, resonates in the hearts of the weepy fringe viewer.

You know who you are.

You're the kind of person who needs both of these teams playing next month.

We all are.


Email: hayesm@phillynews.com

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