HARTFORD, Conn. -
Temple passed yesterday's quiz. Now, can it ace today's killer midterm?
The Owls took care of Memphis, 80-75, in a game that was part American Athletic Conference quarterfinal and part meat grinder. It was Fran Dunphy's 500th coaching victory and, more urgently, critical for Temple's NCAA Tournament hopes.
"It was great, just paying back coach Dunphy for giving us all scholarships," senior guard Will Cummings joked. "It's great just being here from my 4 years, we've kind of been bounced out the first round of our conference tournaments every year. So this was an important game for us as a team, and glad we got the win for coach Dunphy, too."
If Dunphy gets No. 501 today, there will be even more reason to celebrate.
At the start of play yesterday, ESPN's Joe Lunardi had Temple in the NCAAs, but playing Texas in a preliminary game in Dayton, Ohio. Beating Memphis, in Lunardi's view, changed that. He now has Temple solidly in the 68-team NCAA field. A win by Temple over top-seeded SMU in today's semifinals would clinch it. The Mustangs beat East Carolina, 74-68, in their quarterfinal game.
Temple (23-9) has a solid RPI of 33 and a 25-point win over Kansas in December. A loss to Saint Joseph's (RPI: 177) is the mustard stain on their shirts.
If Temple is to surprise SMU, the Owls might have to do so without forward Jaylen Bond, who sprained his ankle late in the first half. He did not return and his status likely won't be known until just before today's tip (3 p.m., ESPN2).
"We just tried to rally around each other and just pretty much win the game," said Cummings, who made the key play against Memphis. With less than a minute left and the game tied at 71, the Owls were in transition when Cummings tried to feed freshman Obi Enechionyia. But Enechionyia dropped it. A scrum ensued and somehow Cummings emerged with the ball and again gave to Enechionyia.
Bang. Three-point play. Enechionyia hit the free throw to put the Owls up three. He hit two more from the line with 10 seconds remaining to add further breathing room.
"He's been growing [all season] and that's what we expect him to do," said Cummings, who had game highs of 21 points and six assists. "We say he's a sophomore. He's not a freshman anymore. We trust him out there. We trust him even more [when we see him] knocking down free throws and making baskets like he did down the stretch."
It was a monster play that might have meant an NCAA Tournament bid.
"I tried not to let the moment get to my head," Enechionyia said.
Dunphy certainly earned his No. 500. When Bond went down, he countered by playing four guards the final 10 minutes of the game and crossed his fingers.
"You're hoping that everything will go OK, and you've just got to battle," Dunphy said. "There's a risk to it [defensively], and then there's a reward down the other end."
Cummings and Enechionyia were joined by Josh Brown, Jesse Morgan and Quenton DeCosey. Enechionyia was the big man.
"If Quenton is playing the four [power forward]," Enechionyia said, "whoever is guarding him is going to be a lot slower."
On the other hand, Memphis, playing a much larger lineup, had 10 offensive rebounds in the second half while Temple had only two. The Tigers even scored six points on one possession with about 3 minutes left, after twice grabbing the offensive rebounds following missed free throws.
"They hurt us a little bit on the boards," said DeCosey, who had 14 points and a team-high eight rebounds, "but we stuck it out."
The Owls were fortunate to face the Tigers without first-team all-AAC forward Austin Nichols, who had a bone bruise in his right ankle.
Dunphy joins John Chaney (516) as the only coaches to win 500 games in the Big 5. Afterward, he was typically reticent, making remarks about his being in the game for 26 years, these numbers are bound to pile up, gave credit to players and staff, that kind of thing.
He also said, "We don't have to talk about it anymore, so that's a good thing."
Dave Duke has been an assistant to Dunphy for 17 years. He has sat next to him for 348 of those wins and was across from him for the very first. Duke was the head coach at Lehigh when Dunphy, then with Penn, registered win No. 1 in 1989.
"He prepares his guys for games. He prepares his guys for life," Duke said. "He's a father figure to them and a pretty good basketball coach. Every day, he shows solid examples of how you should live your life. He's a good human being."
SMU beat Temple twice this season, by five in Philadelphia and by nine in Dallas 3 weeks ago . . . SMU's
was the AAC's Player of the Year. He averaged 14 points in the two games against the Owls, but also committed 13 turnovers in those two games . . . Temple's bench outscored Memphis, 20-5.