Ram Tough

The Temple basketball team has made a habit of playing its best when the spotlight shines the brightest. Now they'll get their chance to play the game on the biggest stage of all. The Owls essentially cemented their NCAA Tournament hopes with a rollicking, 84-76 victory over VCU on Sunday afternoon at The Liacouras Center.

PHILADELPHIA – The Temple basketball team has made a habit of playing its best when the spotlight shines the brightest.

Now they'll get their chance to play the game on the biggest stage of all.

The Owls essentially cemented their NCAA Tournament hopes with a rollicking, 84-76 victory over VCU on Sunday afternoon at The Liacouras Center.

Playing in front of a packed house, and a national television audience, Coach Fran Dunphy's squad erased a 16-point first half deficit, and eventually led by as much as 17 points, on the way to its seventh straight victory.

The Owls finished the regular season with a record of 23-8, including an 11-5 mark in Atlantic 10 play, which put them into a third place tie with La Salle and Butler. Just as importantly, they earned their fifth win over a likely NCAA Tournament team (Villanova, Syracuse, Saint Louis, La Salle, and VCU).

On Friday night, in the Atlantic 10 Tournament quarterfinals, the third-seeded Owls will face the winner of Thursday night's opening round game between UMass and George Washington.

Dunphy's squad will be led into that game by the likely A-10 Player of the Year in senior guard Khalif Wyatt.

Wyatt capped a brilliant regular season with a 30-point effort against the Rams. And afterward, Dunphy let it slip that he thought Wyatt played his best defensive game of the season.

Jake O'Brien drilled 5 of 8 three-pointers and finished with 19 points, while Scootie Randall and Will Cummings both scored 13 points for the Owls. Cummings added a career-high five assists.

Said Dunphy: "I think today we saw [Cummings] coming of age."

All of the above happened after a wild first half, which was to be expected against VCU's frenzied fullcourt press.

Temple jumped to a 12-3 lead, then lost its way on offense, and the Rams battered the home team with a 19-0 run.

Yet it wasn't VCU's "havoc" defense that keyed the run, rather it was the same problem that the Owls have faced often this season – shoddy halfcourt defense. The Rams made eight straight shots during the run, which earned them a 21-12 lead.

Eventually, the lead ballooned to 41-25 with less than four minutes to go in the first half.

Then came O'Brien with a three-pointer and a layup. And suddenly VCU went cold.

The Owls closed the half with an 11-0 run. So the Rams, despite hitting 6 of 6 three-pointers, and shooting 53 percent overall from the field (compared to Temple's 39 percent), led by only five points at the break.

The Owls kept it close by committing just six turnovers. And when they beat the press, they took the ball to the basket and earned free throws.

In the second half, O'Brien got hot, and Randall too.

Within five minutes, the score was tied. Then O'Brien hit a three to give the Owls a 51-48 lead, and the Liacouras Center crowd exploded.

Playing perhaps their best defense this season, the Owls limited VCU to 15 points in the first 14 minutes of the second half. But the game was still up for grabs.

The score was 62-56 when Randall hit a three-pointer to give the team some breathing room. Then Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson stole the ball in the backcourt, hesitated, and then passed the ball to Wyatt, who had missed his first six three-point attempts.

This time, Wyatt nailed a bomb to give the Owls a 68-56 lead. And the Liacouras Center crowd really exploded.

Temple won't have a homecourt advantage anything like that for the A-10 Tournament in Brooklyn.

But they will have the advantage, for every game from here through the end of the season, of playing in the spotlight.

They may not win every game.

But one thing is certain: They will play their best.

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