It’s crazy to think about, how a basketball game and even a basketball season can hinge on a single play, and you don’t know the result of the play, because a referee has blown his whistle and you have to wait another second to see what that referee has decided to call.
Wednesday night inside the Liacouras Center, Houston coach Kelvin Sampson pleaded for the call to be a blocking foul on Temple big man Ernest Aflakpui — since the shot by a Houston guard had dropped in as the whistle sounded and if the call was a block on Aflakpui, the Houston guard would go to the foul line with a shot, 0.6 seconds left, a chance to win the game. Houston’s bench initially celebrated, just for a heartbeat.
The next beat, the call came: a charge on the Houston guard. Replays showed it was the correct call. The basket didn’t count. Temple had knocked off an undefeated team.
We’ll find out in a couple of months, see if Temple keeps taking care of business, but the Owls' 73-69 victory over Houston might turn out to be the most important college basketball game held in Philadelphia this season. Villanova has a bunch of big games. Penn’s fate might be decided in New Haven at the Ivy League Tournament. The rest of the locals will need to win their conference tournaments to go to the NCAAs. (No, we don’t know what’s gone wrong with St. Joseph’s.)
But Temple is 12-3 now and 12-3 with a "W" over Houston is way, way different from 11-4 with no W’s over currently projected NCAA teams.
The path to March Madness is clear. Get some good wins, avoid the bad losses.
Temple players can’t think that way, of course. They have to pay attention to detail, such as where your feet need to be, just outside the little circle around the basket you’re defending, so that a referee can call a block instead of a charge.
“I was supposed to clean everything up,’’ Aflakpui said later. “We were supposed to switch everything. We ended up getting beat to the basket.”
Aflakpui pointed out the defense had made sure there would be no three-pointer, no game-winner from the arc, with Houston down two.
“I saw him coming,’’ Aflakpui said of driving Houston guard Corey Davis Jr.
Aflakpui says he’s figured out ways to make opposing players commit, then take a charge. Owls coach Fran Dunphy, who has seen a game or two, said Aflakpui is the best he’s ever seen at taking a charge.
But had he ever taken a game-winning charge?
“I don’t think so,’’ the senior said. “That’s the first one.”
He knew he was outside the little arc, Aflakpui said. He was standing there for a second, he said, before the collision.
Quinton Rose, who had scored 22 points to lead Temple, sat next to Aflakpui at the postgame press conference, but most of the questions were naturally about a play made by a guy who had scored 6 points.
Has Rose charged into Aflakpui at practice?
“Of course,’’ Rose said. “In practice, it’s frustrating because he’s always taking charges on us. In a game, when he does stuff like that and saves us, I love him.”
In fact, Rose’s finding a nice offensive rhythm against Houston might have been the biggest development of the night, since he’d been struggling to find it. Yes, it was part of the game plan to drive to the rim, to counter Houston’s aggressive defense. Temple scored 24 of its points in the paint, got to the line for 28 free throws, and made an eye-popping 25 of 28 of them, led by 9 of 10 by both Rose and Nate Pierre-Louis, with Shizz Alston adding his typical 4-for-4.
Inside, Aflakpui hadn’t been getting the best of a matchup with Houston’s Breaon Brady, who showed enough moves to lead the Cougars with 19 points. Still, the advantage in second-chance points went to Temple. The Owls played like they knew the stakes.
And when it came down to the last second, the Owls had the Cougars right where they wanted them, at the chest of their 6-foot-10 big man. If a team is supposed to play to its strength, that’s exactly what Temple had done.
Most big guys try to block shots. Why had Aflakpui, an Archbishop Carroll High graduate, charted a different course?
“In high school, I did both,’’ Aflakpui said. “Then once I came to college, it’s a different animal. So I pick and choose. … I think that helps me out. Sometimes you don’t know if I’m going to go for a block or charge. I just think it’s good to have both. It really paid off tonight.”