Behind the efforts of senior guard Khalif Wyatt and redshirt-sophomore forward Anthony Lee, Temple (11-4, 1-1) avoided extending its first two-game regular season losing streak since February 2009 in a 64-54 win against Saint Louis (12-4, 1-1) at the Liacouras Center on Saturday.
Wyatt led all scorers with 24 points and Lee added 20 points and 10 rebounds, his third double-double of the season.
The Owls outshot the Bilikens by a margin of 48 percent to 35 percent, including 46 percent to 19 percent from three. Temple was able to build a substantial lead in the first half after outshooting Saint Louis 54 percent to 39 percent in the first 20 minutes.
Temple was outrebounded 40 to 32, outscored in the paint 30 to 24 and had its bench outscored by Saint Louis’ 13 to 6. But the shots that counted fell for the Owls in the second half, some of them by skill, some of them by luck.
“We had a couple of very lucky baskets,” coach Fran Dunphy said. “Will Cummings threw one on the flat part of the rim that kind of hung there for a stretch and dropped in. That was a lucky shot. Khalif had a lucky shot. Maybe we were due for a little luck.”
Freshman guard Quenton DeCosey started in place of redshirt-senior Scootie Randall, who after opening the season playing the best basketball of his career, has shot 30 percent in his last eight games.
Dunphy said he asked Randall to let DeCosey know that he’d be starting in his place.
“I said I’d like to give [DeCosey] an opportunity and I’d like you to tell him,” Dunphy said. “I thought [Randall] handled it very well. He’s struggling a little bit. He’s not making the shots he was making before. I’m just trying to loosen things up a bit.”
Randall played the minutes when it counted, though. After DeCosey played the first eight and a half minutes of the first half, he played less than two minutes for the rest of the game, including no time at all in the second half.
Randall played every minute of the second half and finished with 32 minutes as opposed to DeCosey’s 10.
“Scootie played a lot of minutes today and we’re going to need him down the stretch,” Wyatt said. “Scootie took it well and Quenton took it well. I think coach just wanted to try something new and see how it looked.”
Wyatt opened the game by scoring seven of Temple’s first 11 points, creating a lead that would change three times in the first six minutes, but that Temple would hold from the 14 minutes, 13 seconds mark of the first half until the end of the game.
A 9-4 Temple run in the closing minutes of the first half, capped by a steal and dunk by freshman guard Will Cummings, extended the Temple lead to 11 at the 2:09 mark, the largest lead of the game.
Temple led 34-26 at halftime behind 10 points from Wyatt and Lee apiece, while outshooting Saint Louis by a margin of 54 percent to 39 percent.
“My biggest improvement is being comfortable with the players I’m playing with,” Lee said. “Last year, I was trying to fit in. Now I’m more comfortable with what the coaches want me to do and with players dishing the ball to me, it helps me, because I just have to finish.”
Temple did not come out shooting as well in the second half, when the Owls managed two buckets in the first eight minutes of the second period. Three Saint Louis field goals and five free throws during that span, which was capped by a dunk from Bilikens’ junior forward Rob Loe, cut the Temple lead to three with a little more than 11 minutes remaining.
But Wyatt and Lee took over, scoring 18 of Temple’s 24 points from that point on.
Wyatt hit a crucial three-pointer at the 11:10 mark to kill Saint Louis’ run. Two more plays from Wyatt made with less than five minutes to play had Dunphy saying luck was on the Owls’ side Saturday night.
Wyatt was trapped in the corner under the Owls’ basket around the 4:30 mark with Temple up five. He dribbled out, lost possession of the ball, but somehow regained it and found Lee under the basket for a layup and a foul.
“The pass [Lee] was all luck,” Wyatt said. “It was a bad possession. I was sloppy with the ball, but I kept my focus and was able to hold on to the ball and at the end of the play I was able to find [Lee].”
Two minutes later, Wyatt was trapped in the opposite corner on the Owls’ side. While trying to draw contact on a three, Wyatt fell down while shooting, but made the trey anyway, extending the Temple lead to seven and essentially ending the game.
“When I pump fake and they jump, I’m just trying to get into them, because most of the time that’s a foul. Maybe like 75 percent of the time that’s a foul,” Wyatt said. “I’m trying to get a good shot on the rim to give it a chance to go in. They didn’t call it today, but thankfully I put it up soft enough on the rim for it to go in.”
The win comes following back-to-back losses to No. 6 Kansas (14-1) and Xavier (9-6, 2-0), respectively. Temple also lost to Canisius at home on Dec. 19, but upset then No. 3 Syracuse at Madison Square Garden three days later.
“Every game is so critical in this league, and every game is critical to your goal of getting to the NCAA tournament,” Dunphy said. “We know have 14 league games left, and every one of them is going to be an absolute battle.”
Temple continues A-10 play Wednesday, Jan. 16, when the Owls travel to the nation’s capital to take on George Washington (7-8, 1-1). Tip off is set for 7 p.m.
Joey Cranney can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @joey_cranney.