Temple has plenty to look forward to next year.
For now, the Owls are still focused on the task at hand.
A season everyone felt would have concluded by now has suddenly swelled deep into March.
The Owls now find themselves one win away from going back to New York’s Madison Square Garden for the National Invitation Tournament Final Four.
With a 61-53 win at Rhode Island Tuesday night, Temple (18-15) advanced to tonight’s NIT quarterfinal matchup against Minnesota at the Liacouras Center.
Win tonight, and the Owls will be back in the NIT Final Four.
They lost in last year’s semifinal to eventual NIT champion Memphis and an NBA-bound Dajuan Wagner.
After first round exits from both Pennsylvania and Saint Joseph’s in the NCAA Tournament, in addition to Villanova’s opening round loss in the NIT, the Owls are now the only local team still alive in postseason play.
Moreover, Atlantic 10 Conference schools Xavier and Dayton were eliminated in the first two rounds of the Big Dance.
After defeating Drexel in the opening round of the NIT last Tuesday, Temple’s resurgence continued with a 75-62 win over Boston College three days later at the Palestra.
The win set the Owls up with a familiar foe, Rhode Island, a team Temple had defeated twice already this season.
Falling behind by nine points with four minutes left in the first half at a raucous Ryan Center, the Owls scored 10 straight, the last of which came on a Mardy Collins alley-oop to junior guard Brian Polk that gave Temple a 30-29 lead at the half.
Polk led all scorers with 19 points and Collins added 13, but the Owls swarming defense kept the Rams in check.
Despite junior guard David Hawkins’ foul trouble throughout the game, the Owls limited the Rams to just seven points during the opening 12 minutes of the second half.
The Rams, who had come from behind to beat Seton Hall, 61-60, on March 19, chipped away at Temple’s lead as the game wore on.
However, steals from Hawkins and Collins on consecutive possessions with under two minutes left clinched the victory.
“I feel good about this team. For some reason we step up in the tournament,” Hawkins said.
“Hopefully we can just come out with it this year, make it to same spot, but with a different result.”
After doing just enough to upend Drexel last week, coach John Chaney was not pleased with his team’s performance and expected a more concerted effort against Boston College.
“I’ve heard a lot of kids disappointed because they were not in the NCAA’s and they thought they should have been,” Chaney said.
“I’ve been involved so long that I’ve come to understand that all of us are just not going to get there.”
Hawkins followed up a subdued performance against Drexel (10 points and six turnovers) with a career-high 36-point explosion against Boston College.
Hawkins also had seven rebounds, four steals, and played all 40 minutes for the fifth consecutive game.
Collins played fearlessly against senior guard Troy Bell, the Big East Player of the Year, notching 17 points and five assists.
Collins said Bell was trash-talking the entire game.
Bell struggled, shooting just 5-for-19 with 15 points.
“We were just talking for a while until (Temple women’s) coach Dawn Staley told me to shut up and stop running my mouth,” Collins chuckled.
“I just shut up after that.”
With six minutes left in the game, Collins drove into the lane, spinning at the last second for an easy lay-in, giving the Owls a 56-55 lead they would not relinquish.
Then, at the 3:12 mark, he stole the ball and assisted Hawkins on a layup that resulted in a three-point play and extended Temple’s lead to 62-55.
Hawkins scored 14 of his 36 points in the final five minutes of the game.
After the game, Hawkins talked about the close relationship he has with Chaney.
“He calls me before every game.
Sometimes he just calls me randomly, and sometimes I call him…I think it’s good that you can just call your coach up and just talk about more than just basketball,” Hawkins said.
Despite the difficult loss to Dayton in the A-10 Championship, the Owls are playing again with the same verve and confidence they’ve displayed since the beginning of February.
“I think the kids just get and play. When the bell rings they just go out and play their hearts.
They either have it or they don’t have it,” Chaney said of his team’s spirited play.
Now the rest of the teams in the city, and in A-10, are being represented by the Owls.
Though the NIT is mocked as a consolation tournament, right now it has been the best excuse for the Owls to forget about the NCAAs.
Jason Haslam can be reached at email@example.com.