Khalif Wyatt keeps Temple cool on the court

Temple's Khalif Wyatt drives on VCU"s Rob Brandenberg on March 10,2013 at the Liacouras Center. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)
Temple's Khalif Wyatt drives on VCU"s Rob Brandenberg on March 10,2013 at the Liacouras Center. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 12, 2013

Through a sometimes queasy season, the Temple Owls looked like a team that could win a game or two in the NCAA tournament.

After Sunday's exhilarating win over Virginia Commonwealth, we're going to find out. The Temple team that beat Syracuse but lost to Canisius, that beat St. Louis and La Salle but lost to Duquesne, found itself trailing No. 21 VCU by 16 points in the first half.

This was the moment. Either the Owls would get run off the floor by VCU's self-proclaimed "Havoc" defense or they would declare themselves a real contender.

A loss wouldn't have been fatal. But it would have forced Temple to win at least one game in the Atlantic Ten tournament this week - maybe even against Butler.

Winning meant finishing the regular season on a seven-game winning streak, punctuated by an impressive comeback win.

Winning was better. Temple won.

But even more promising, for the Owls and their seasick fans, this win reinforced the suspicion that this team is meant for March. It felt like an NCAA tournament game. Here was an unfamiliar opponent with a quirky style of play, exactly the kind of team you face on a weekday afternoon in Auburn Hills, Mich., or Salt Lake City.

"If Temple plays like they did today," VCU coach Shaka Smart said, "not only should they make the NCAA tournament, they can win games in the NCAA tournament."

The Owls were able to handle VCU's intense defensive pressure, keep their composure after falling behind, and then impose their will. They were able to do it because they possess elements that loom larger in March than at any other time of the year: veteran players, especially in the backcourt, and a master coach.

"We dug ourselves a hole, but we've been in positions like that before," forward Jake O'Brien said. "I think it helps to have a veteran group, guys that have been there before. We just played under control."

Fran Dunphy had his starters practice against six or seven reserves to prepare for VCU's defensive pressure.

"That's how it feels when you're out there, like there are seven of them sometimes," Temple senior Khalif Wyatt said. "We knew how they were going to play."

Maybe Dunphy's best coaching move was simply to trust Wyatt. College basketball is lousy with coaches who try to control their players as if by remote control from the bench. Dunphy prepared his guys, then let the best of them take control of the game.

Wyatt did just that. If there was any doubt that he deserves Atlantic Ten player-of-the-year honors, he scrubbed it away. It wasn't even the 30 points against just four turnovers. It was the way Wyatt asserted himself. He had the ball on every possession. He practically defied VCU's quick and relentless defenders to take it from him. He found open teammates or he hurled himself into the lane, writhing to draw fouls while getting off quality shots.

"His feel for the game is pretty extraordinary," Dunphy said. "I wasn't surprised that he was so poised. You can see what our guys do. When they get a little pressure, they're looking for him. If I was playing with him, I'd look for him, too."

That kind of presence can make the difference in the emotional atmosphere of a tournament game. Three weeks ago, after a one-point home loss to Duquesne, you had to wonder whether Wyatt and the Owls would get it together in time to avoid the ignominy of a quick A-10 exit and an NIT invitation.

Now those inexplicable losses are part of the team's foundation.

"We had an up-and-down year all year," Wyatt said. "As of late, the last seven games, we came together. We're playing for one another, we're making shots, we're playing defense. The way we're playing unselfishly and playing for one another, it's kind of cool."

After a couple of blurry months, it looks as if Philadelphia will send three teams to the NCAA tournament. It will be new for La Salle, and no one knows how the Explorers will respond. Villanova, like Temple, has shown the ability to confound whether it's winning or losing.

Of the three, Temple just feels like the one with a chance to do something. It's a chance the Owls gave themselves Sunday.


Contact Phil Sheridan at psheridan@phillynews.com. Follow @Sheridanscribe on Twitter.

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