TEMPLE'S BASKETBALL team doesn't go down back-to-back. Or, at least it hadn't in exactly 3 years and a day. So you didn't really think this season's Senior Night at the Liacouras Center, where the Owls have dropped one in the last 2 1/2 seasons, was going to be any different?
The 23rd-ranked Owls, who had lost by 10 on Saturday at Saint Joseph's to end their 11-game winning streak, needed overtime for the second time in three games to finally get past Massachusetts, 90-88.
They've now gone 103 consecutive games without two straight losses, the second-longest streak in program history (129, from 1984-88) and current third-longest behind Kansas (234) and Duke (119).
After the Minutemen - who'd rallied from a nine-point hole in the closing 2:39 of regulation - scored the first six points in the extra 5-minute period, Temple got the last five, all by Khalif Wyatt, the winner coming on a breakaway layup off a pass from Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson (who'd just made a block) with 16 seconds left.
In what could turn out to be their last home game in the Atlantic 10, the Owls (23-6, 12-3 A-10) clinched the top seed in the conference tournament, which they won in 2008, '09 and '10, and secured at least a piece of their second regular-season title in 3 years.
One week earlier, the Owls had won by one in OT at La Salle, after squandering a late lead in regulation.
"I hope we're a team that finds a way," said coach Fran Dunphy. "We just got lucky. I don't know how we [did it]. You do get a little crazy sitting there wondering, how are we going to figure this one out."
After trailing by five at halftime, the Owls went up, 75-66, at 2:54 on four free throws (thanks to a technical). But UMass (19-10, 8-7) made four three-pointers to get back to within one with just under a minute showing. The Owls missed three foul shots in the closing 39 seconds, and Raphiael Putney's putback tied it. Temple had the last chance, and got two shots, both from the perimeter. Each, first by Juan Fernandez and then Ramone Moore, was blocked.
UMass led by six after almost 3 minutes of OT, but the Owls got to within one by converting five of six freebies in a 19-second span ending at 1:55. After Micheal Eric missed two 15 seconds later, UMass went up three on a pair by Putney at 1:12.
But Wyatt drove down the right side of the lane, drew contact and turned it into a three-point play at 58.9. UMass got it down low, but Hollis-Jefferson rejected Maxie Esho, came up with the rebound and unfurled the outlet to Wyatt at midcourt. Wyatt nearly lost control before putting it in.
"I'm not used to being alone by myself running down the court," he said. "I dribbled too high, I guess. I did a good job of not walking."
UMass got two more chances, including a tip, but couldn't extend things. So it didn't matter that Hollis-Jefferson missed two freebies with less than a second to go.
So the Owls remain a game ahead of St. Louis, but they own the tiebreaker by virtue of their win in early January. They'll close Saturday at last-place Fordham (10-18, 3-12). St. Louis (23-6, 11-4), which might be the only other A-10 team that gets into the NCAA tourney, finishes at Duquesne (16-13, 6-8).
"Coach Dunphy was telling us to slow the pace down, but they sped us up a little bit," said Eric, one of Temple's four seniors, who tied a career high with 19 points, all in the second half. He also had 15 boards, for his third straight double-double.
"We got out of character," he continued. "We didn't expect it to be that crazy . . .
"I just think my teammates needed me. I was thinking of them every second. I wanted to make sure my presence was felt. I told Ramone and Khalif to pass me the ball, and I'd try to figure something out. It's a great feeling, but it's the win that matters.
"I was just lucky to be in a position to be there for my teammates. I have to do stuff like this."
The Owls shot 39 percent, including Moore's 5-for-19, but were 30-for-40 at the line. UMass, which was 12-for-24 from the arc, shot 10 fouls and made six. It makes a difference.
"We can play a lot of different ways," Wyatt said. "Sometimes you have to adjust."
He had only four field goals, but was 17-for-18 at the line. The only Owl who's ever made more in a game was Lynn Greer, who converted 18 against St. Joe's in 2002. Wyatt also contributed six assists and three steals.
Hollis-Jefferson had 12 boards, five assists and three steals.
UMass got 26 points from Hofstra transfer Chaz Williams, generously listed at 5-9. But as Eric noted, he's like a one-man transition. He also had 11 assists, eight boards and four steals, which almost made you forget his five turnovers. Putney and Terrell Vinson each scored 16, but they were two of three starters who fouled out. Jesse Morgan had 15, on the same 19 shots as Williams.
The four Owl seniors, three of whom start and two of whom are fifth-year guys, won their 100th game in the last four seasons to finish 48-4 at home. Pretty good legacy. And they're hardly through yet. This group has known from the start that for them it's all about March. Still, you have to get there.
The last week has been some ride. What will the next few bring?
"We wanted to make sure we got this win for the seniors," Wyatt said. "We stuck together, found a way.
"We've had games like this before. Nobody wants to lose two in a row. That was the emphasis."