YOU NEVER GET over that initial feeling of being kicked in the gut. The emptiness, the helplessness.

But how do you respond? Take something bad and turn it into a couple of weeks to be proud of.

If you're Temple's basketball team, and got left out of an NCAA Tournament many folks thought you'd done enough to make, you mostly look to your senior point guard to show you the way.

"I felt like someone had taken something away from me," is how Will Cummings will always remember a Selection Sunday that, for whatever reasons, didn't include the Owls' hearing their name called. "It really hurt. As a basketball player, you set goals for yourself. That was my goal. We had a horrible year [9-22] last year. So when you don't achieve that, and you know you won't have the opportunity to come back and do it again, I was really down for a little bit.

"It was like a piece had been taken out of me."

That was three games ago. Tonight in Madison Square Garden in New York, the Owls (26-10) will play Miami (24-12) in the first half of the NIT semifinal doubleheader. The winner gets Stanford (22-13) or Old Dominion (27-7) in Thursday's title game.

"It's one of the greatest stages," said Cummings, who has scored 30, 21 and 15 in the three wins, all at home, the last two, respectively, by 13 over George Washington and 18 over Louisiana Tech.

"We're just trying to win two more. We kind of took it as a challenge to try and make a statement with each win. At this time of year, all you want to do is play basketball. At this time last year, we weren't playing. We were at home watching. So we're grateful to be playing . . .

"I sent out a text to the guys saying, 'It's over now. Do what you've got to do to refocus.' Just play the cards we were dealt. Just play basketball. The worst-case scenario is, we're still playing right now. Not to take anything away from the NIT, but we really wanted to play in the NCAA. We can't change that. Last year, I was feeling even worse, because we were done already. I wanted to make sure they understood that and tried to take advantage of it."

Coach Fran Dunphy, who's never coached in the NIT before, felt concerned for Cummings more than anyone else.

"He'd put the most time in, and had the most success," Dunphy said. "As a coach you're saying, 'He deserves to go.' But it didn't happen. We talked a little bit about what we could have done that might have got us over the hump. Then you take a step back and say there's going to be a bunch of teams out there wishing they were still playing. So here we are. Let's embrace it. It's going to not be easy, but let's really do our job.

"The way he approached it, he was not going to let us lose that first game [a six-point win over Bucknell]. I think that's made a difference in how we've played over the last two. I think that's what a leader does. He's dragging his team to New York City."

Temple won the inaugural NIT, in 1938, the year before the first NCAA Tournament. The Owls finished third in 1957, the year between their two NCAA Final Four appearances. They lifted the trophy again in 1969, when only 32 teams went to the NCAA and all 16 NIT teams played the entire tourney in New York. They were also third in 2002, the year after John Chaney made the last of his five trips to the Elite Eight.

This is the first time Miami has made it this far in the NIT. The Hurricanes were good enough this season to win at Duke by 16 on Jan. 13.

"The more successful teams are, the more they're going to remember these times," Dunphy said. "The lesson learned is, yeah, we're devastated. But there is life after this. What are we going to do about it? Feel sorry for ourselves or pick ourselves up and do the best we can?

"As I said that night, if this is the biggest disappointment that they all have, then they're going to have really good lives. I don't want to minimize the devastation. It's horrible. We've all been through it. You watch the TV and after it's over you say, 'OK, who was the most snubbed?' You don't want to be that team, because it doesn't feel any good. Luckily, there was an NIT for us. And luckily, we've gotten ourselves in this position. And hopefully we can do more.

"I haven't watched nearly as much [of the NCAA]. But you know what? That's OK."

He'll get no argument from the guy who only wants his college career to have two more games.

"I don't watch [at all]," insisted Cummings, who accepted an invitation to the Portsmouth (Va.) Invitational for NBA scouts held April 8-11. "If I'm out somewhere eating and the game's on, you're forced to see it. But I don't sit in my room and go, 'Oh, Wisconsin's playing so-and-so.' I won't do it.

"We're in a different tournament. Anytime you can win a championship, it's a great feeling. You've accomplished something, no matter what your goal was before. How many teams are still playing? We're one of them.

"It's just something that fuels you. But you don't think about it too much. Because it's too late to do anything about it. We know we should have been there. But let's go win the NIT."

On Twitter: @mikekerndn