TUCSON, Ariz. -- They arrive at the great collegiate carnival, all of them do, with a set of dreams jammed into their suitcases. Everyone’s is different. For some, it is simply to play well and not embarrass themselves. For others, it is to win once and stay the weekend. For others, it is more. Temple’s was more.
There were all kinds of reasons why the Owls’ first game on Thursday against Penn State was uber-meaningful -- because of Coach Fran Dunphy’s history in the NCAA Tournament and because of this group of players and their three consecutive losses in the first round. But, truth be told, they wanted even more.
No one was kidding themselves. The athleticism and size of San Diego State was going to be a big mountain in the next round. Still, they arrived with a realistic hope.
Which they carried through regulation time.
In the end, after a game that will not soon be forgotten by the entire Philadelphia basketball community, Temple went down at the end, 71-64. They didn’t get a whistle in the late stages of the game, and they endured a killer call in the first overtime on a lane violation that gave San Diego State an additional free throw that made all the difference, but they still almost pulled it off.
For the Owls, Ramon Moore finished with 17 points, while Juan Fernandez and Khalif Wyatt each had 14. And after it was over, with the arena celebrating San Diego State’s victory, the Temple players gathered in a circle at mid-court for one final meeting. Several left it with tears and headed to the dressing room.
It looked tenuous, well, all night, really. But with 1:47 left in regulation time, after Khalif Wyatt drained a three-pointer from the right side, the Owls were within two points of scratching and clawing and pulling the upset. And then, after a fierce defensive possession left the Aztecs with a wild no-hoper of a shot, Lavoy Allen knifed through the lane and drained another shot with 50.2 seconds remaining.
It was neither pretty nor efficient. Instead, it was raw and it was wonderful and it was 54-54.
The final minute of regulation was splendid agony. Temple never got the ball back after Allen’s shot. And when the Aztecs’ Chase Tapley missed on a wild runner at the buzzer, it was overtime.
Five more minutes of hell.
And then, 5 more.
Double-overtime in the West Regional. Double-overtime, with everything on the line. Twice, the Aztecs had the last shot and twice the missed. This is the working definition of living on borrowed time, but it was something they seemed to become comfortable with doing the entire game.
The Temple dream was flickering by halftime. The 36-31 lead for the Aztecs does not adequately tell the story of what really were three distinct sections of the half.
For the first 9 1/2 minutes, Temple got the kind of game it needed to have. The score was 14-14, the possessions were longish (for the most part), and the explosive athleticism of San Diego State was largely holstered. Now, don’t get me wrong: Temple was more hanging on than it was dictating to the Aztecs, but it was still what they needed.
Then, with 10:24 to go in the half, Fernandez was called for his second foul. As is his custom, and most coaches’ custom, Dunphy offered Fernandez a seat on the bench. It lasted for about 2 1/2 minutes. In that time, the Aztecs converted two Temple turnovers into baskets, one of them a rim-shaking jam at the end of a fast break. The run had started and, even with Fernandez back, the Owls seemed powerless to stop the acrobatics. With 3:17 left, San Diego State led by 36-25 and Temple looked somewhere between frazzled and unglued.
Then came the third act of the first half. Dunphy went with more of a defensive lineup, including guard TJ DiLeo in place of Fernandez, in a desperate attempt to reel the game back in -- and it worked. After a stretch when the Aztecs built their lead by scoring on 10 out of 12 possessions, they came up dry in the final three. Temple finished the half with a 6-0 run.
The deficit was five. It could have been worse and it probably should have been worse.
Temple, a man-to-man team, showed zone on a half-dozen possessions early in the second half, just to make the Aztecs think. It worked, to a degree. More than anything, it left them kind of standing around and scratching their heads on offense, which set a slower tempo, which is what the Owls so desperately wanted to foster.
The Owls had a shot to take the lead, trailing 42-41, when Rahlir Jefferson missed a fast-break layup with about 12:30 to play. After that, they hung on as desperately as a team can hang on. Throughout, everyone was waiting for the San Diego State explosion that would blow open the game.
It never came, not through the longest day.
But it didn’t matter in the end.