HARTFORD, Conn. – Will Cummings had just come out of a scrum, and he was in pain.
On the play, Temple’s senior point guard fought on the floor for a loose ball and was able to get it to freshman forward Obi Enechionyia in the paint for a basket and the foul to give the Owls another one-possession lead with time winding down. Enechionyia would eventually cap a 3-point play with the free basket.
Though his limp was pronounced once the play ended, as he appeared to have aggravated his ankle on the play, Cummings stayed in the game and soon stepped to the free-throw line with 19 seconds remaining in the game after he was intentionally fouled on the Owls’ ensuing offensive series.
This time, unlike when he suffered a lower-leg muscle strain in early January that kept him limited for the better part of two weeks, the Jacksonville, Florida native was fine, and in sinking both free throws with the Owls’ postseason hopes on the line, he helped his program to an 80-75 defeat of Memphis Friday in an American Athletic Conference tournament quarterfinal at the XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut.
The win marked Temple’s first in a conference tournament since the Owls took the Atlantic 10 Conference title in 2011 at Madison Square Garden.
“I’m great,” Cummings said when asked about his health. Without hesitation, he said it again and broke out with a laugh and a wide smile.
For Temple’s senior leader and the rest of his team, this was a moment of relief after a game that featured little of it.
Temple hadn’t enjoyed a lead larger than an eight-point advantage throughout the contest, and led for 13 minutes, 40 seconds compared to Memphis’ 21:35.
In a battle of the conference’s fourth and fifth seeds, neither team was ever out of the game until single ticks remained on the clock.
“I thought we made some good plays down the stretch,” coach Fran Dunphy said. “I thought our defense was decent, and yet we gave up a couple of easy baskets … but we survived.”
Temple (23-9) appeared sluggish out of the gate, and faced early deficits that included scores of 9-3, 16-8 and 20-13. The Owls later went on a 10-0 run to take a 28-23 advantage with 4:45 left in the half, before Memphis closed the period on a 9-3 run to take a 32-31 lead to the locker room.
Junior forward Jaylen Bond injured his ankle with just more than a minute left in the first half, and did not return to the game.
Without the conference’s top rebounder in Bond, contributions such as Devontae Watson’s eight points and four rebounds, all of which came in the first 9:30 of the second half, helped keep the Owls afloat.
“As soon as he went down, I was like, ‘I know I have to do something,’” Watson said. “I just felt like I had to step in and try to be on the boards offensively, and I knew I had to do score.”
“It ranks at the top [for me],” Watson added of his performance. “I really was able to help the team win [Friday], and in such a critical moment. This is win or go home, and I felt like I really played a key role.”
Friday marked Watson’s 25th start in 32 appearances, but he had been averaging 2.4 points, 3.1 rebounds and 14 minutes per game heading into the matchup with Memphis. His impact inside to start the second half, Cummings said, helped make a difference in the outcome of the game.
“Ultimately, we told guys [they] had to step up,” Cummings said. “Devontae came out strong. He gave us a great lift when he came in to the game. We tried to rally around each other to win the game.”
Cummings paced the floor with 21 points and six assists, both game highs, and knocked down 10 of 11 shots from the foul line. Junior guard Quenton DeCosey chipped in 14 points and a team-high eight rebounds, while senior guard Jesse Morgan finished 3 of 7 from 3-point range for 13 points.
Missing its leading scorer in sophomore forward Austin Nichols, Memphis had five players reach double digits in scoring. Junior forwards Trahson Burrell and Shaq Goodwin led the Tigers with point totals of 16 and 15, respectively, while Goodwin snared a game-high nine rebounds.
Temple will play Southern Methodist, the winner of the preceding quarterfinal Friday, at 3 p.m. on Saturday at the XL Center. The Mustangs (26-6) have the No. 1 seed in the tournament with The American’s best regular-season conference record, and defeated Temple in both regular-season meetings with the Owls.
“We have to play very, very well,” Dunphy said of Saturday’s semifinal with SMU, the No. 20-ranked team in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. “We have to see if Jaylen Bond can play. He’s our best forward defender, and if he doesn’t play, that’ll hurt us a little bit. But we have to control what we can control.”
Bond posted four points and four rebounds before his injury at the 1:01 mark of the first half. His status for tomorrow is uncertain … Enechionyia finished with nine points, three rebounds and three blocks in 23 minutes off the bench … The win was Dunphy’s 500th career victory as a head coach. He has spent his last nine seasons with Temple, and previously guided the University of Pennsylvania from 1989 to 2006.
Andrew Parent can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Andrew_Parent23.