BROOKLYN, N.Y. – It was the kind of stage that Khalif Wyatt has embraced throughout his career.
The Atlantic 10 Conference tournament, likely the last that Temple will ever compete in. The Barclays Center, an NBA arena, in front of a crowd of more than 7,000. A chance to bolster the Owls’ NCAA tournament résumé.
Wyatt, a senior guard and the A-10 Player of the Year, has typically put up career numbers in similar high-stakes atmospheres during the past two seasons. This year, he scored 30 points against then No. 19 Virginia Commonwealth University on March 10 and scored a then career high 33 points against then No. 3 Syracuse on Dec. 22.
But in Temple’s quarterfinals match-up against Massachusetts in the A-10 quarterfinals on Saturday night, Wyatt turned in one of his worst shooting acts of the season.
Wyatt shot 4-for-19, including 2-for-11 from three, in a 79-74 loss to UMass. It was the second year in a row that the Minutemen eliminated Temple in its first game after a bye in the A-10 tournament.
Last year, the Owls struggled down the stretch and it carried over into the postseason, where Temple was also knocked out of the NCAA tournament in the first round. But this year, Temple was on a seven-game winning streak and playing some of its best basketball of the season.
“I think we were in a little bit better position than we were last year,” coach Fran Dunphy said. “We just hope to get a chance to play next week and see what we can do.
Wyatt’s 21 percent shooting performance was his worst since the team’s 90-67 loss to then No. 2 Duke on Dec. 8. The rest of the team combined to shoot 51 percent, but couldn’t contain Massachusetts redshirt-junior guard Chaz Williams, who scored a game high 28 points.
“I had some good looks,” Wyatt said. “My teammates kept coming me and trusting me, but the ball just wasn’t going in.”
Ten of Williams’ 28 points came in the game’s final seven minutes, when the lead changed three times. Temple took as much as a three-point lead at the at 6 minute, 35 second mark, but an 8-2 UMass run over the next two minutes gave the Minutemen the lead for good.
Last year, in the Minutemen’s 77-71 win in the A-10 quarterfinals, Williams scored 20 points. In his last four games against the Owls, Williams has averaged 22.5 points.
“Chaz Williams is one of the best players in the conference,” Wyatt said. “He plays hard. He’s relentless. He definitely made some winning plays down the stretch.”
After Wyatt hit a three to cut the lead to two with a little less than a minute remaining, UMass senior forward Terrell Vinson to make it a five-point deficit, essentially ending the game.
In Saturday’s loss, Wyatt ultimately led Temple with 19 points, shooting 9-for-10 from the line. Owls’ senior forward Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson scored 17 points and added nine rebounds and seven assists.
Temple was outrebounded 40-23, largely due to the absence of redshirt-sophomore forward Anthony Lee. Lee got into foul trouble early and was ineffective down low. He scored two points, had two rebounds and finished with four fouls in 16 minutes.
“The rebounding edge is 13-9, the way I look at it,” Dunphy said. “They got four more offensive rebounds than us. But they didn’t miss as many shots as we did, and so that’s going to be the discrepancy.”
Dunphy was forced to use graduate forward Jake O’Brien, more of a shooting forward than a center, in Lee’s place and the Owls were overpowered in the blocks as a result. UMass finished with 13 rebounds and 14 second-chance points.
Temple was outrebounded 23-9 in the first half, but the Owls led by one at half after forcing 12 turnovers and scoring 11 points off of them. The Minutemen were also unable to capitalize on too many second-chance opportunities, scoring eight points on 10 offensive rebounds.
Williams led all scorers with 12 points in the first half. He shot 4-for-7 from the field and 4-for-4 from the line. Wyatt led a balanced Temple scoring attack with nine points, but was limited to 2-for-8 shooting.
“They’re a good defensive team,” Wyatt said. “They’re strong, they play hard. I give them a lot of credit for playing solid defense.”
Temple outshot UMass 15-32 (47 percent) to 13-29 (45 percent) in the first half, including 4-14 (29 percent) to 1-6 (17 percent) from three.
The first half was absent of any major runs and was more of a back-and-forth affair as both teams limited their opposition’s main offensive threat, relatively. The Minutemen’s largest first-half lead was three. The Owls’ was five.
UMass opened the second half with back-to-back threes, which gave them a five-point lead, tied for the Minutemen’s largest of the game. Williams led his team with 26 points in the second half on 4-for-6 shooting.
Temple was led in the second half by Hollis-Jefferson and redshirt-senior forward Scootie Randall. The pair combined for 19 of Temple’s 36 second-half points, including 18 of the Owls’ first 22 points in the second half.
“I just was trying to go all out and help our team get a win in the A-10 tournament, and give the young guys a taste,” Hollis-Jefferson said.
There will be a two-day wait until Selection Sunday, when Temple will find out if and who it will be playing in the NCAA tournament. Under Dunphy, the Owls are 1-5 in March Madness play. Multiple bracketologists predict Temple will pick up an at-large bid as a No. 11 seed.
“I can’t sit here and say I’m confident,” Dunpy said. “We don’t have any control at this point. We had our control today and didn’t do a good job with it.”
Joey Cranney can be reached at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @joey_cranney.