John Chaney has been Temple’s coach for 21 years and aside from his inaugural season on North Broad Street, the candid Chaney says this year’s squad will hold a special spot in his heart.
“My first year at Temple was always one of the cornerstones of this program,” he said, “and this [year] I think will also be a cornerstone…because it’s just like the first one.”
In his first season, 1982-83, the Owls overcame a slow start only to put together a late-season surge, coming within one game of the NCAA Tournament after losing to West Virginia in the Atlantic 10 Conference final.
The Owls did things in a similar fashion this year, but this time, after losing in the conference title game, the Owls took advantage of an opportunity in the National Invitation Tournament.
“Our record certainly wasn’t what it could have been or should have for postseason play,” Chaney said.
“But because of our reputation we were chosen as one of the teams to go into the NIT after losing a chance at the NCAAs.”
After surging into the NIT quarterfinals, Temple’s season ended last Thursday at the hands of Minnesota, 63-58, in overtime at a rabid Liacouras Center.
The Owls had a chance to win in regulation, but junior guard David Hawkins, the team’s best free throw shooter, could only hit 1 of 2 with 13.9 seconds left.
Minnesota missed a last second shot, and the game went into overtime.
The Gophers scored the first seven points of the extra period en route to victory and advanced to the semifinals at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Minnesota’s 19 second-chance points and Temple’s poor shooting ultimately led to the Owls’ demise.
The Owls hit just 26 percent from the field and a frigid 8-for-33 from beyond the arc.
The Gophers countered the Owls’ matchup zone with a zone of their own, along with a three-quarter court trap.
Minnesota cut off the wing, where Temple likes to position junior guard Brian Polk.
For numerous spurts of the game, the Owls stood around, unable to create any offensive consistency.
“I started to miss my shots at the beginning, so that threw me off, and I just never got into a rhythm,” said freshman point guard Maurice Collins, who had nine points and three assists in 42 minutes.
Despite the unheralded reputation the NIT has attained, the extra games were beneficial for the Owls, who last year made it to the NIT semis before losing to eventual champion Memphis.
“We just learned so much playing against these big name schools,” Collins said.
However, for senior forward Alex Wesby, there was little to take from the game, especially since it turned out to be his last in an Owl uniform.
At the 14-minute mark of the second half, Wesby suffered a high ankle sprain and did not return.
X-rays on Wesby’s ankle revealed only a sprain.
Collins, like the rest of the team, expected Wesby to return, but realized he was done once he left the bench to get further medical attention.
Temple’s two other leaders were also unavailable for comment after the game.
Hawkins left the locker room before the coaches press conference had concluded and Polk, who led the Owls with 19 points, politely declined to speak with the media.
A distraught Hawley Smith said.
“Of course it hurts, it’s tough to take, to lose with a chance to go back to New York and the NIT Final Four. That was our goal after our conference tournament, to fall short again is rough.”
While the Owls’ locker room resonated with disenchantment over their shortcomings, Chaney thought their efforts this season spoke volumes.
“I told them they made a great season and an old man happy this season and kissed them all…All in all, I’m very proud of them,” Chaney said.
“They turned a season that was disastrous into a promise for the future.”
With only Wesby departing after this year, Temple’s future is quite promising.
Hawkins and Collins will be back to lead a talented backcourt, and center Keith Butler will have another summer to retool his game and improve his strength and conditioning.
The potential of Antywane Robinson as a do-it-all forward is very promising.
The Owls also have two solid recruits, point guard Mario Taybron and power forward Wayne Marshall, who could see significant playing time next season as long as they qualify for freshman eligibility.
“We got a lot of young guys who have had plenty of experience this year…With everybody else back we should look to be a powerhouse in our conference,” Smith said.
Such a notion is a very realistic possibility after a two-year absence from the NCAA Tournament.
Judging by their responses, it sounds as if some of the players are already itching for those early morning practices.
Jason Haslam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.