The men’s basketball team lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year, this time to Cornell.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Sophomore guard Ramone Moore sat with his head in his hands Friday afternoon at Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena.
Junior forward Lavoy Allen crossed the silent, empty locker room, caught Moore’s eyes and uttered two simple words:
The No. 5-seeded Temple men’s basketball team had just lost to No. 12 seed Cornell, 78-65. For the third year in a row, the Owls lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Temple has not won a game in the Tournament since 2001.
Coach Fran Dunphy’s losing streak in the NCAA Tournament continued, too. He has now lost 12 consecutive games as a coach for an overall record of 1-12, including 0-3 with Temple.
Afterward, he could only stare at a statistic sheet that would provide little solace.
A season that had looked so full of promise a week ago came to an abrupt end about two-and-a-half hours after the 12:30 p.m. tipoff Friday.
“It’s been a great ride, a great year,” senior guard Ryan Brooks said. “A year that many people didn’t expect us to have in the first place, and that’s something that I will look back on and really be thankful for. We were talking about how we can’t let this game right here define our season because it’s been a great year for a number of players, for the whole team, for the coaching staff collectively. We want to win, and we wanted to move on, especially in this Tournament this time of year, but when the time comes, you would definitely like to reflect on this and be happy.”
Brooks, along with fellow seniors Luis Guzman and Rafael DeLeon, won three consecutive Atlantic Ten Tournament titles in their four years on North Broad Street. They made three straight appearances in the NCAA Tournament.
This year, their final one playing at the Liacouras Center, proved to be particularly special, though.
It started when Temple defeated then-No. 3 Villanova, 75-65, on Dec. 13. Six days later, the Owls traveled to Newark, N.J., and beat another Big East opponent, Seton Hall, while a blizzard raged outside the Prudential Center. That Monday, Temple made the Top 25 for the first time since 2001. The 29-6 Owls finished the season ranked No. 12.
The Owls followed their defeat of Villanova with wins against the other three teams in the Big 5 – Saint Joseph’s, Penn and La Salle – to claim their first outright city title since 1987-1988.
Despite finishing in a tie with Xavier for the regular-season A-10 title at 14-2, Temple held the head-to-head tiebreaker thanks to a 77-72 win Jan. 20 and clinched the No. 1 seed at the A-10 Tournament in Atlantic City, N.J., two weekends ago.
The Owls proved the doubters wrong, as a preseason coaches’ poll had picked Temple to finish in a fifth-place tie with Duquesne. Instead, Temple rolled through the A-10 Tournament. The Owls never trailed in their three wins against St. Bonaventure, Rhode Island and Richmond.
But the Owls could not prove the doubters, including the NCAA Selection Committee, wrong last Friday.
Temple entered the game with the third-best scoring defense and the third-best 3-point defense in Division I. After the first 20 minutes, though, Cornell had missed only six shots and led by eight points at 37-29.
And in the second half, the Big Red kicked their 3-point offense into gear. Cornell had made just two of its seven 3-point attempts in the first half. In the latter 20 minutes, the Big Red showed why they lead Division I in that category. After senior guard Louis Dale missed his first two 3-point attempts of the second half, the Big Red made three in a row. They connected on 43.8 percent of their attempts in the second half, .4 percent above their NCAA 2009-2010 average.
The Owls shot 51.9 percent for the game and lost for the first time this season when shooting better than 40 percent from the field. Cornell shot 56.3 percent from the field for the game, the third opponent to shoot 50 percent or higher against the Owls this season. The other two – Richmond and Kansas – also beat the Owls.
Cornell’s nine seniors, including forward Ryan Wittman, center Jeff Foote and Dale, combined for 57 points for the game.
“I think we were all just enjoying the moment a lot,” Foote said. “We’re all seniors, so this is our last chance to do it. If you don’t enjoy it, then it’s not worth doing. We all had a lot of fun out there. It was nice to see our hard work of four years pay off, and we were just pretty excited.”
“I think it starts with us just being best friends,” Dale said. “We all like to have fun. Even though we got the NCAA game, it’s just another game. We’re going to go out and play hard and have fun. That’s the most important thing.”
Their collegiate basketball days will continue, as the Big Red head to Syracuse, N.Y., Thursday to face No. 1 seed Kentucky.
But for Brooks, Guzman and DeLeon, last Friday’s loss was the end of the line.
“It definitely hurts a lot, especially for our seniors,” Allen said. “Like you said, we had a great season, but we just couldn’t get it done today.”
DeLeon, a walk-on, scored his first career points on a layup in the 73-46 win against Saint Joseph’s on Jan. 6. He started his first game as an Owl March 6 versus George Washington on Senior Day. With 17 seconds left in Friday’s loss, Dunphy made sure to substitute the senior into the lineup for his first on-floor experience in the NCAA Tournament.
At the same time, Dunphy substituted Brooks out of the game. The co-captain finished with 14 points in his final game in the Cherry and White, just about right on his team-leading season average of 14.3 points per game. He scored in double digits 26 times this season, including a career-high 29 points against Massachusetts Jan. 16. That day, Brooks became the 45th Temple men’s basketball player to score 1,000 points. The Second Team All-A-10 Conference selection ends his collegiate career with 1,225 points, 31st all-time.
Guzman, Brooks’ fellow co-captain, netted nine points, his most since the Feb. 3 win against Duquesne, in his final day as an Owl. The point guard, who led Temple with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.0, which was good for fifth in the A-10, sat helplessly on the bench for seven minutes after picking up his second foul at the 12:33 mark in the first half. Temple committed six of its nine first-half turnovers without him on the court.
“I got in foul trouble, and I put most of the blame on myself [for the turnovers],” Guzman said. “[I could feel the game slipping away] at the eight-minute mark [of the second half]. I was just like, ‘Damn, we’re down 15 or 12. It’s going to be over.’”
“Lou had a fabulous senior year, and I thought his effort today was terrific,” Dunphy said. “We didn’t need for him to get out of the game at that point, and we did throw him back in there a little offense-defense toward the end of the first half. It was a difference. I think he was a steadying influence in many ways, so it was a difference. Lou is in many ways a heart-and-soul kind of guy, and we were missing him.”
Despite the loss to Cornell, many of next year’s contributors saw time on the court last Friday afternoon, including freshmen T.J. DiLeo and Rahlir Jefferson and sophomores Moore, Scootie Randall, Juan Fernandez and Micheal Eric.
“We knew coming in that it’s very hard to win in this Tournament,” Brooks said. “No team wants to go home. Everybody’s playing very hard. Unfortunately, we weren’t on the winning side of this, but there’s definitely things that this team can take from this game in the future and this experience, and they’ll get better.”
Jennifer Reardon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.