Dunphy Deserved Better

The Owls stuck with the gameplan and controlled the floor for the first 15 minutes against South Florida on Friday night. Then they lost control, they lost the lead, they lost their poise, they lost their focus, and ultimately, they lost their cool and they lost their NCAA Tournament opener to the Bulls.

NASHVILLE – Coach Fran Dunphy deserved better.

The Temple men's basketball team was fully prepared for its NCAA Tournament opener against South Florida on Friday night in Nashville.

Dunphy made the right defensive assignments. He left the offense in the hands of his three veteran guards. And the gameplan produced a double-digit lead in the final minutes of the first half.

Sure, the game was ugly. The fans at Bridgestone Arena gave a derisive cheer when the Bulls snapped a 10-minute scoring drought with a free throw that made it 15-6. They mocked them again when South Florida hit the 10-point mark – with 3:52 left until halftime.

Coach Stan Heath's team missed 22 shots in a row.

The Owls were in total control.

And then, for some reason – not Dunphy – the Owls lost control. They lost the lead. They lost their poise (on offense). They lost their focus (on defense). And finally, Khalif Wyatt lost his cool and the Owls lost the game.

Stylistically, Temple's 58-44 loss to South Florida was the exact opposite of its 77-71 loss to UMass in the Atlantic 10 Tournament one week earlier. Substantively, it was exactly the same.

The result was Dunphy's first back-to-back losses since February 2009. How long ago was that? Sergio Olmos was the starting center and Semaj Inge was starting point guard on that team.

The Owls brought a far more talented and experienced lineup to Nashville.

And yet they still collapsed, almost inexplicably, just as they had in the first five minutes of the second half against UMass.

To some degree, the loss to South Florida was a case study in cause and effect.

The Bulls hit their first two jump shots, both of which were thrown at the basket in half-desperation as the shot clock ticked under five seconds. Then they went scoreless for 10 minutes. And it might have been 15 minutes, except for highly questionable foul calls against Anthony Lee, Juan Fernandez, and Michael Eric.

The free throws allowed the Bulls to reach double digits on the scoreboard, but more importantly, Fernandez's second foul (when USF point guard Anthony Collins lost his footing as he drove to the basket) had a huge effect on the rest of the game.

With their senior point guard shuttling on and off the floor on offensive and defensive possessions, the Owls lost any semblance of rhythm.

On one possession, T.J. Dileo was forced to a call timeout after getting trapped on the baseline with five seconds left on the shot clock. The Owls came back on the floor and seemingly forgot the situation, as Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson got trapped and the shot clock expired.

Clearly, the Owls never fully adjusted to South Florida's quickness and strength on the defensive end of the floor.

Ramone Moore never found a comfortable place to shoot the ball, including the free throw line, where he missed the front end of a 1-and-1 that preceded the biggest sequence of the first half.

Despite the building foul trouble, and more than a few careless turnovers, Temple was in pretty good shape with three minutes left in the first half.

The score was 19-10. And it felt like one of those games where the first team to 50, no, make that 40, was going to win. And it didn't seem likely that the Bulls would hit 20.

Then came trouble. It started innocently enough with another South Florida miss, but this time the Bulls grabbed the offensive rebound. And missed again. And grabbed another offensive rebound. And missed again.

And as the players scrambled after the third miss, Wyatt was whistled for grabbing a player's jersey in the lane. The official called it an intentional foul. It was the right call.

USF center Augustus Gilchrist made two free throws and the Bulls got the ball. And on the ensuing possession, backup shooting guard Shaun Noriega – the only USF player without a hitch in his jump shot – slipped away from Aaron Brown and nailed a three-pointer to make it 19-15.

Temple went scoreless for the last six minutes of the first half.

So the halftime score was much lower than it was in last week's loss to UMass. But the lead was basically the same – a two-possession game – and the game smelled the same.

If Dunphy made one mistake, it may have been this: He opened the second half with the same defensive assignments, which meant Fernandez was guarding Collins.

Offensively, the freshman point guard had been a near-zero for the Bulls in the first half. He dribbled a lot, but he created nothing for his teammates, and he scored three points.

The second half was a different story.

From the very first possession, it was clear that Fernandez was scared to death to pick up his third foul, and he defended Collins accordingly. The fearless little guard sensed the opening and took it. He drilled a jumper and quick-stepped along the baseline for a layup.

When Noriega faked Moore off his feet and nailed another three-pointer, the Bulls had a 24-21 lead.

Suddenly, all the Ohio fans at Bridgestone Arena, the same ones who mocked South Florida's offensive woes in the first half, were boisterous Bull boosters. (Most of the Michigan fans had gone home after the Bobcats stunned the Wolverines earlier in the night.)

The Owls' experience, skill, and general sense of calm should have carried them through the early second-half wave. They had overcome similar circumstances in countless road games over the past four years.

But they didn't manage it well against UMass, and they didn't keep their poise on Friday night.

During a brutal four-minute stretch, Temple struggled almost every possession to simply hold on to the ball and get a decent shot. And every missed shot and every turnover (two by Fernandez) ignited South Florida's fastbreak, where Collins excelled.

The Owls were so anxious to score that they lost all their floor balance and failed to pick up their assignments on defense, surrendering three consecutive three-pointers. In a flash, the Bulls had put together a 13-2 run, and the Owls were staring at a 39-25 deficit with 12 minutes left in their season.

How frustrated were the Owls? After one South Florida score, all four of his teammates ran upcourt while Fernandez stood under the basket waiting and eventually pleading for somebody to come back and throw him an inbounds pass.

Dunphy called timeout and the Owls pointed fingers and gestured at each other as they walked to the bench.

It finally got better when the Owls returned to the halfcourt pace of the first half.

After committing four turnovers in the first nine minutes of the second half (adding to their seven first half turnovers), they lost the ball just once in the next 10 minutes.

And everybody took turns hitting big shots – first Moore, then Eric, then Hollis-Jefferson, then Wyatt.

The referees swallowed their whistles and the Owls went on their own 13-2 run, capped by Moore's three-pointer with 5:45 to go that made it 41-38.

South Florida's next possession went just like 90 percent of their offensive possessions against Temple's halfcourt defense. But it ended differently than any other possession in the ballgame.

The Bulls looked for an opening, but couldn't find anything. Eventually, Victor Rudd settled for a long, rushed three-pointer. Coming into the game, Rudd was shooting 29.5 percent from three-point range. He made 4 of 6 threes against the Owls. This one banked in, off the glass, with one second left on the shot clock.

Afterward, Dunphy and Moore pointed to that shot as a killer.

In fact, the Owls had several more chances.

Wyatt missed a three. Fernandez stole the ball. Moore missed a three. Eric grabbed the offensive rebound. Wyatt then drove to the basket and forced contact. He stretched his arm and missed a layup. After it missed, he screeched for a foul call. Instead he drew a technical foul.

If the arena was full, or loud, the referee might not have heard it, or ignored it. But Wyatt made it almost impossible to ignore.

With almost four minutes to go, the scoreboard said the Owls still had a chance.

The body language of the five guys on the floor said it was over.

And now there are only the numbers.

Moore scored five points. Fernandez scored one. The Owls scored 44 points – 20 less than any other game this season. South Florida hit 9 of 33 two-point attempts, and 8 of 17 three-point attempts.

But the number that won't be forgotten, and will be repeated next year, and every year until it changes, is Dunphy's 2-14 record in NCAA Tournament games.

Are the Owls regular season overachievers or postseason underachievers?

Or is this just the fate of this particular group of players?

People like to say the NCAA Tournament is all about matchups.

But St. Joseph's point guard Carl Jones was a great matchup for the Owls when Fernandez scored against him at will this year at The Liacouras Center. And it was a bad matchup when Jones got Fernandez in foul trouble on Hawk Hill.

The same could be said about Collins' first-half failure and second-half success in solving the Owls' defense on Friday night.

Eric was alternately matched up against Gilchrist and Ron Anderson, Jr., who picked South Florida ahead of Temple when he transferred out of Kansas State in 2009. Gilchrist and Anderson combined for two points (which came on the free throws awarded after Wyatt's intentional foul). But they also limited Eric to one offensive rebound.

Matchups?

In A-10 play, the Owls had trouble with guard-oriented, offense-oriented, uptempo teams. They still beat them most of the time. Yet they had some issues against teams like La Salle, UMass, and Dayton.

South Florida wasn't guard-oriented or offense-oriented, though they certainly have the athletes to operate better at a faster pace.

So the cliché about NCAA Tournament matchups may not be completely accurate.

But one basketball mantra that is accurate is this: It's easier to slow a team down than it is to speed them up.

The Owls stuck with Dunphy's gameplan in the first half against South Florida. Then they let a few bad calls and a few bad breaks knock them off course. Then they got themselves back on course, before finally running out of gas.

For all Dunphy's preparation, he deserved a better showing from his team.

And all he can do now is start back over again.

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