Temple defeated Atlantic 10 and Big-5 rival La Salle 80-79 in overtime on Wednesday night.
It looked like both shots were going in.
La Salle senior guard Earl Pettis took a 27-footer with five seconds left in overtime with a chance to give the Explorers a last-second win. The ball hit the back of the rim.
A quick rebound and kick out to sophomore guard Sam Mills, who was wide open for three, looked like the kind of game-winning play that teams win on so often. Mills’ shot rimmed out.
Temple players looked up in disbelief as the horn sounded, relieved that they somehow escaped from the Tom Gola Arena with their 11th straight win.
“We were so close, I thought both those last two shots were in,” La Salle coach John Giannini said. “This league is incredible. The difference between winning and losing is minuscule.”
No. 22 Temple (22-5, 11-2 Atlantic 10 Conference) defeated La Salle (18-10, 7-6 A-10) 80-79 in overtime in a back-and-forth Big 5 and A-10 game that featured gritty performances from both teams.
Pettis scored a career-high 33 points, including 14 in the final five minutes of the second half. He scored another five in overtime before missing the crucial last-second shot.
“It would have been poetic justice if that ball had gone in with the way [Pettis] played,” Temple coach Fran Dunphy said. “We just got lucky at the end.”
“We knew Pettis was going to shoot it, he was having a great second half,” junior guard Khalif Wyatt, who was guarding Pettis, added. “He had a great game. It ended up being me against Pettis at the end. He got a good shot off. I got a good contest.”
The way the game was going late, Temple must have wanted to avoid overtime at all costs.
After holding a 10-point lead with less than five minutes left in the second half, Temple broke down mentally and defensively. Pettis scored the next six points for the Explorers before a technical foul on Owls’ redshirt-senior guard Ramone Moore sent Pettis to the line for two more.
On the ensuing possession, Pettis hit a game-tying three with one minute and 25 seconds left, which would be the last score of the second half.
“I think La Salle is a very good basketball team,” Dunphy said. “For us to have a decent lead at the end of the game, I was happy about. Our disappointment is that we didn’t manage the last three or so minutes left in the game.”
“To come out of here with a win given all of those circumstances, we’ll take it, but know that we got very fortunate,” Dunphy added.
The first half was a defensive dogfight between the two teams. Both the Explorers and Owls held their opponent to under 40 percent shooting and forced multiple turnovers. The teams combined to turn the ball over 15 times and miss 47 shots in the first half.
Graduate center Micheal Eric, who finished the game with a double-double, had 12 points and seven rebounds in the first half alone.
Eric, listed at three inches taller than any La Salle player who gained significant minutes, had a career-high six blocks and disrupted play under the net throughout his 36 minutes.
“The biggest factor in the game was Eric,” Giannini said. “Those six blocks were everything. We made our share of shots, but not shots at the rim, and that’s Eric.”
Eric said he is still working on getting back to 100 percent after he missed 13 games earlier this season with a knee injury.
“I’m still working on a lot of things,” Eric said. “I’m still working on trying to stay low. I’m still working on finishing around the basket. It’s still a work in progress. Everyday could be a bad day, you never know.”
Wyatt scored a team-high 25 points for Temple, including 10 points in a row toward the middle of the second half. He was an integral part of the Owls gaining a lead late, before Pettis took over and sent the game to overtime.
“Every time we made a run, they had an answer and came right back,” Wyatt said. “We had a couple of big leads and every time we got up they just kept fighting. That stretch was big for us, but La Salle bounced back.”
Temple took a six-point lead in overtime before Pettis scored five in a row and La Salle forced a stop, setting up the game’s last play. Explorers’ freshman guard D.J. Peterson got the rebound after Pettis’ missed shot and quickly kicked it out to a wide open Mills, whose shot went just long.
“Thank God he missed it,” Wyatt said. “Then they got another good shot in the corner. Thank God he missed it.”
The Owls shot 72.2 percent in the second half, something that Giannini said was a credit to Temple’s offense rather than breakdowns with La Salle’s defense.
“I look at them shooting 70 percent in the second half, and I tell you we were playing great defense,” Giannini said. “They’re amazing. If you help, they find that open man. And my goodness do they make shots. They’re a pain in the butt.”
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a team play better offensively,” he added. “They get good shots and they make them. It’s a good combination. I would be happy to criticize ourselves, but I just have to praise Temple.”
Temple’s win improves the Owls to 3-0 in the Big 5. With a win against St. Joseph’s on Saturday, Temple can clinch the Big-5 title.
Joey Cranney can be reached at email@example.com.