It was just one of those things. Right when it looked as if the listless Owls were incapable of beating a formidable opponent, they woke up. When you enter the drafty halls of the Palestra, reputation, streaks, and all other factors get thrown out the window.
If anything, the Owls’ cathartic 53-52 victory over Villanova came at a critical juncture in this young season. After disconcerting losses to Auburn and Arizona State, hope seemed to be dwindling for this raw and talented squad.
“It was a tough game that could have gone either way,” Temple coach John Chaney said. “Playing in the Palestra is third rate. It’s a tough place to coach, because [the players] can’t hear you. The first half I’m talking to their asses and Jay [Wright, Villanova’s coach] is talking to their faces, so I’m all messed up.”
Chaney was so infuriated with center Keith Butler and power forward Wayne Marshall after the Owls’ last loss that he threatened to take one of them out of the starting lineup. He didn’t.
“I was pleased [Butler] was able to stay on the floor,” Chaney said. “Usually, it’s two minutes, two fouls, and he’s off the floor. This time, I think he stayed on just a little bit longer, which I was pretty happy with, because I’m trying to go as big as I can, as best I can.”
Both played well enough, especially Butler. He hit all three of his shots and hauled down 10 rebounds.
Just how important was this win?
In the current three-year hiatus from the NCAA Tournament, the Owls have begun each season horrendously. Now, at 2-3, they face an undersized University of Pennsylvania squad tomorrow night at the Liacouras Center. Things are beginning to look a little bit up.
Another reason this win came at the right time was pride. Teams in a Big 5 match realize the implications, so the loss stings more than usual for the Wildcats, who, despite a ton of talent, were unable to make it all mesh.
Moreover, some of the Owls who played in last year’s season-opening midnight start, in which they got absolutely embarrassed, might have used that game as fuel for their fire.
Chaney probably was the most satisfied, and it showed. His press conference turned into a comedy cabaret as he railed about the crammed confines of the Palestra, the lack of bathrooms in the building, and went so far as to complain about the size of his manhood.
It was easy to see Chaney was happy with the win.
By no means does this guarantee an Owls turnaround in this early season. But it does give them a fighting chance, and assures them they are capable of closing out tight games. Now they just have to keep doing this.
The most refreshing aspect on Saturday was the way Temple won. It was a good old-fashioned, ugly game. A majority of Chaney’s wins have been stodgy and suffocating. The matchup zone forces teams to shoot from the perimeter, and Chaney relies on opponents missing their shots.
“We tried to speed them up. We pressured them,” Wright said. “It wasn’t like we didn’t have the opportunity to get into our press. Sometimes you can’t get into what you want to do. We got a chance to pressure them. We got a chance to trap their ball screens. We got a chance to do everything we wanted to do. They handled it one more possession better than we did.”
Both teams shot poorly. The Owls shot a characteristic 35 percent from the floor, and the Wildcats managed just 31 percent. The largest lead of the game was seven points by the Owls.
“I thought that was a great college basketball game,” Wright said. “It was fun to be a part of it. It was not fun at the end, but I have to give Temple a lot of credit. I thought they really got their zone going. They played very well. I thought our guys played well, I just thought we didn’t make shots.”
It was a great game, and it was excruciating, too. But for the Owls, these first games are child’s play before they face Alabama, Wake Forest, Duke and Maryland in their next seven.
Maybe, when the season draws to a close, the now-confident Owls will look back and realize the importance of this win.
Jason Haslam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.