TUCSON, Ariz. - The sheet of paper, like so many things in a game often decided by practiced repetition, is something of a habit. In the last hours before a game, maybe to focus his own thoughts, maybe to emphasize a critical point one final time, Fran Dunphy writes down what he thinks is important to say to the team.
It is the same scene every time. He comes into the locker room. The players are in the chairs arrayed around the room. The piece of paper is in his hand. They know the drill. It is time to listen or present a good facsimile of listening.
Dunphy sat down to outline his message on Thursday morning in the basement of the McKale Center at the University of Arizona. It wasn't an important game or anything, just the opening game of the NCAA tournament for the Temple Owls, who had gotten this far and no further for three consecutive seasons under Dunphy. For the coach himself, despite no lack of acclaim for his skills, it was an opportunity to win a tournament game for only the second time in a 22-year head coaching career and for the first time in 17 years.
At the regular time, on the same schedule as always, Dunphy went into the locker room before the game against Penn State with his piece of paper. The players were in their places. The room got quiet. Dunphy showed them the paper. It was blank.
"I'm pretty sure that's what got us over the hump," Dunphy would deadpan much later, standing in the same locker room after Temple advanced by beating Penn State, 66-64, in a game that was merely decided by which team had the ball last.
That team turned out to be Temple, and the winning shot was made by point guard Juan Fernandez, an ungainly, ducking-in shot near the foul line that swished through the basket with 0.4 seconds remaining.
"We say so many things and do so many things [as coaches], and, in the end, it's just about the kids making a play, and that's what happened," Dunphy said.
Which is why the paper was blank. After a summer and fall of working together, after a four-month regular season, and a dissatisfying end to the conference tournament, Dunphy realized he had said everything to them at one time or another.
"Typically, I write all this drivel before the game, but today I didn't," Dunphy said. "I told them, 'What, I'm going to tell you what to do? This is our 33d game. Forget all that and just go play.' "
The game they played, and the one played by Penn State, turned out to be extraordinary, at least partly because the lessons from all those previous pieces of paper had been absorbed. The Owls did what they always do. They played ugly and hard and somewhat mystifyingly. It isn't a real Temple game if you don't scratch your head at least once.
What preceded Fernandez's winning shot didn't really add up. Penn State was without its best rebounder and defensive presence for all but 10 minutes of the game. Jeff Brooks was limited by foul trouble in the first half and a shoulder injury in the second.
Temple should have responded by pounding the ball into forward Lavoy Allen, and the Owls tried to get that going but never did. Allen didn't have a field goal in the first 38 minutes of the game. Instead, Temple's offense was carried by Fernandez, with 16 points in the first half, and Ramone Moore, with 17 points in the second.
Neither was a real surprise. Moore is the team's leading scorer, and Fernandez, despite coming off a dreadful 3-for-17 shooting day against Richmond in the Atlantic Ten tournament, takes and makes big shots. The surprising part was that the depleted Penn State team kept up.
Give most of the credit to shooting guard Talor Battle - whose deep, rainbow three-pointer tied the game with 14.2 seconds to play - but the Nittany Lions, with four starters playing either 39 or 40 minutes, never gave in to what would seem an inevitable loss.
In the end, as Dunphy said, it came down to a kid making a play and the capricious decision of the round ball to fit itself through the 18-inch rim. The Owls gathered in a huddle before the final play, and sophomore guard Khalif Wyatt spoke before Dunphy could.
"He's got sage advice for me often," Dunphy said. "He said, 'Just put it in Juan's hands.' He's an astute basketball player, and he had trust in Juan. If a guy's teammate tells the coach what he thinks they should do, I'd be goofy not to follow his instruction."
Not every coach thinks that way, however, but this was the day of the blank paper for Dunphy. He had brought them this far, to this place where the outcome means so much, and now it had to be about them. No speech and no diagrammed play to secure the basket he's been waiting 17 years to score. Give the ball to Juan? Fine.
It wasn't pretty. Fernandez came off a high pick set by Allen and was figuring to shoot a jumper there, but he was confronted immediately by Penn State's Tim Frazier and had to pick up his dribble. No one was open. The clock was ticking. Frazier jumped one way, Fernandez leaned the other, poking his head through the madness like a squirrel peeking from inside a tree. He had a look. He leaned forward, and the shot was on its way.
"I had a good feeling about it," Dunphy said.
It wasn't a feeling he had in the NCAA tournament for a while, but he'll remember it a lot longer than he would have remembered what he wrote on his pregame sheet of paper. Sometimes blank is better, and sometimes the kids have the right to make the game their own. Sometimes a coach is even good enough to realize that.
Contact columnist Bob Ford
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