DAYTON, Ohio - When you carry around an 800-pound gorilla, he's not so easy to discard.
Temple came to Dayton bearing the burden of recent NCAA Tournament failure, and although the Owls led by as many as 18, they escaped with a 76-72 win over North Carolina State on Friday.
Temple (24-9), the East Region's ninth seed, will play Indiana on Sunday. The Hoosiers, the region's top seed, made quick work of James Madison, 83-62.
Temple senior Khalif Wyatt gutted out a thumb injury by making all six of his free-throw attempts in the final 33 seconds. He just refused to end his career with another one-and-done exit.
"We've played against really good guards this year," North Carolina State coach Mark Gottfried said. "[Oklahoma State's]Marcus Smart is a terrific freshman and Trey Burke at Michigan is really, really good, UConn's guards are very good. In our league, we saw great guards, and Khalif Wyatt is as good or better than all of them."
Wyatt scored 31 points and made 12 of his 14 free throws. His 200 made free throws breaks Hal Lear's 56-year-old single-season record. When you are in the same sentence as Hal Lear, you are pretty special.
"Luckily, it was his left hand that was bothering him," Owls coach Fran Dunphy said.
Jake O'Brien added 18 for the Owls, who came into the game 1-5 in NCAA Tournament games under Dunphy.
No defeat was more disappointing than last year's dreadful loss to South Florida when the Owls, a No. 5 seed, made only 15 field goals and scored just 44 points. It was a different story early Friday when T.J. DiLeo's layup with just under 5 minutes left in the half was the Owls' 15th field goal in 23 tries. That's 65 percent, folks. Against 12th-seeded USF, the Owls made fewer than 36 percent of their shots.
"Anytime you can win a game in the tournament, it's very, very important to your program," Dunphy said. "It's very important for us to establish ourselves as a team that can win in the NCAA Tournament."
Wyatt got his hand tangled up in an North Carolina State jersey early in the second half and grabbed it in obvious pain. Although he sat out only about 2 minutes, his absence disjointed Temple's rhythm and allowed North Carolina State to chip away at what had been an 18-point Temple lead. The Wolfpack made nine of its first 11 shots after intermission and got as close as three.
All-ACC forward Richard Howell was his usual monster self with 14 points and 15 rebounds. Lorenzo Brown, the Wolfpack's defensive stopper, did a commendable job on Wyatt, although the Owls senior did drop 31. Brown scored 22 points as the Owls tilted their defense toward stopping sniper Scott Wood.
Wood shot 16-for-27 during the ACC Tournament, but was just 2-for-7 Friday. His two three-pointers did ratchet up the heat as Temple's lead dwindled from 18 to 12 to six and eventually to three.
"The whole game was nerve-racking," said Dunphy, who often buried his head in his hands as the Owls missed 11 free throws in the second half (20-for-31). "You knew it was going to come down to the end. We had a nice lead, but NC State is too powerful a team to have it be easy for us down the stretch."
Temple eventually started to sink its free throws. None was bigger than the final six made by Wyatt as Owls Nation took a breath for the first time in more than a year.
"He has icewater in his veins," Dunphy said. "He's as tough a competitor as I've had an opportunity to coach. He just wants the moment."