TEMPLE WAS sleepwalking through the first half of a late-season contest against lowly Houston in a game the Owls had to win. The Cougars came into the Liacouras Center with a 1-13 league record and a 9-17 mark overall, but they were the hungrier team and took a five-point lead into halftime.
Coach Fran Dunphy didn't seem overly concerned. He told the Owls to just stay the course. Dunph can get on his players with the best of them, but coaches can't scream and yell all the time. It will diminish the message and burn the players out.
So point guard Will Cummings brought the heat.
"During halftime, he challenged everybody to play our best basketball," teammate Jaylen Bond said. "We couldn't lose this game. He challenged everybody to pick it up and leave it all out on the court."
Cummings is a senior and the window is closing on his career. A loss to Houston would have been crushing for the Owls' hopes for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. The selection committee might have even looked at that 25-point win over Kansas in December as merely an aberration.
"From the outside looking in, he comes across as a soft-spoken guy," Bond continued. "But once he's with his team, he brings out an intensity and gets on people if they're not doing their job."
Then Cummings, just like he was taught by his older brother, backed up his words with deeds.
Midway through the second half, with the game very much in doubt, there was a sequence in which Cummings made a layup, threw a lob that led to a thunderous dunk by Bond, had a steal and drew a charge. The flurry put the Owls up by eight. They won by 12 to start their current three-game winning streak.
It was just like being back in Jacksonville, Fla., when he had to earn his way onto the court.
"He's always been the youngest and was always with me and my friends," said D.J. Cummings, who at 28 is his older brother by 6 years. "We didn't want to hear him talk. We told him, 'If you can play, show us.' "
The Owls are very much on the NCAA Tournament bubble, but it beats last year's disaster.
It looks like tough love has always been the way in the Cummings home. His mother, Angela, offers observations of Will's play on the court and a shoulder for him to lean on away from it. His father, Willie, is a police officer in Jacksonville, which meant all sorts of unique lessons on how to stay out of trouble.
While they certainly instilled toughness, they also didn't forget the love.
"When I was younger, my dad would take a TV remote control and put it up to me and pretend to interview me," Cummings recalled with a laugh. "This is when I was a freshman in high school and wasn't getting recruited yet. I would brush him off. But he told me that one day I was going to need to know how to handle [interviews]. Now, I'm talking to reporters every day. It's pretty funny looking back at that."
Cummings admits things weren't always cherry and white in his time on North Broad Street.
He came out of Providence School, a highly regarded private institution that won the state title his junior year (and again just a few weeks ago). As a senior, Cummings nearly carried the Stallions to a repeat despite losing their leading scorer with an injury just before the playoffs.
"He was overlooked coming out of school because of the presence of [fellow Floridians] Austin Rivers and Shane Larkin," Providence coach Jim Martin said. "We've had a lot of really good players come through here, but Will is the sleeper. What he did in his senior year was as phenomenal a performance [as that] of any kid I've ever had."
Cummings had playoff games of 23, 28 and 24 before Providence was eliminated on a last-second shot in the semifinals.
Patric Young was a senior on the Providence title team. He went on to star at the University of Florida and is now playing in Turkey.
"Will has typically been the kind of leader that leads with actions," Young wrote in an email from Istanbul. "His put-on-my-hard-hat everyday mentality is something that is cool to watch because he's consistent."
Coming off such a successful high school run made it tough to stomach the 6.3 minutes per game he saw as a freshman for the Owls. He was a contributor his sophomore year when the Owls came within a 5-minute collapse to Indiana of making the Sweet 16. Last year, though, was awful.
The Owls set the dubious program mark with 22 losses. When things were at their darkest, Cummings would ring up his big brother. Sometimes by phone, sometimes electronically.
"Oh," his mother said, "he leans on his big brother."
It was clear early on that the Owls were in for a long year. The team was in Europe on a preseason tour and Cummings wasn't playing well. Dejected, he reached out to his brother. D.J. responded not with a shoulder to cry upon, but with a kick in his little brother's rear. Tough love.
"He sent me an email that just ripped me," Cummings recalled. "They were often one-sided conversations back then. I just sat and listened. He hurt my feelings, but it kind of paid off."
D.J., who lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, lived in Maple Shade, N.J., when Will was a freshman at Temple. He was back in Philly on Saturday when Will and the rest of the senior class were saluted before the game.
"Yeah, I laid into him pretty good," D.J. said of his email. "I said, 'If this is what you want to do, the time is now.' At least that's the PG version. I think it was the first time I talked to him as an adult and not as a little brother."
In Saturday's win, Cummings had a season-high 23 points. The Owls were 9-22 last year. They are 22-9 this season and might need a win - maybe two - to get into the NCAA Tournament.
"It's been a crazy ride, really," Cummings said. "Being through the struggle of last year and seeing all of the hard work that we put in in the offseason pay off. It makes this type of win more emotional. We worked hard for this."
Will Cummings' game is not without flaws. Most problematic is his struggles from beyond the arc. Last year, he shot just 30.8 percent from three (32-for-104). This year, he's even worse at just 18.6 percent (16-for-86). He's able to get to the rim with his incredible quickness. Cummings is shooting 46.7 percent on two-point field-goal attempts.
But more detrimental to the Owls than his misfiring from deep, is how disjointed Temple looks when Cummings is not on the floor. He has missed all or significant parts of six games over the last two seasons with various injuries. Temple is 0-6 in those games.
"Obviously, as the season unfolded, it's easy to see how valuable he is to us," Dunphy said. "We can't afford to have too many possessions without him on the court. He has arrived as a college basketball player. He's had a really nice year."
Cummings is fifth in the American Conference in scoring (14.1 per), fourth in assists (4.3) and first in steals (2.1). He almost surely will be named first-team all-league today and is in the conversation for conference MVP. Big difference from 2013-14.
"This time last year, nobody was around," Cummings reflected. "There was no media, no cameras. Nothing. It just shows you that hard work pays off and how well we've come together as a unit. [The difficulties of last year] provides us with the motivation to finish the season strong and try to make a run."