NEW YORK – Under coach Fran Dunphy, the Owls seem to do it every year.
Temple (9-2) handed No. 3 Syracuse (10-1) its first loss of the year in an 83-79 win at Madison Square Garden Saturday, the fifth time in consecutive years the Owls have knocked off a Top 10 team with Dunphy at the helm.
Senior guard Khalif Wyatt scored a career high 33 points, including going a perfect 15-for-15 from the free throw line, and redshirt-sophomore forward Anthony Lee grabbed nine rebounds and scored 21 points, also a career high.
The win comes after the Owls regressed in a bad 72-62 loss to Canisius Wednesday when Temple shot 35 percent, including 4-for-28 (14 percent) from three.
“I don’t know if we would have won today if we had won Wednesday,” Dunphy said. “We had a comeuppance against Canisius. They did everything they needed to do to win the game. But I think our kids understood the challenge today.”
This was the second game in as many seasons when Wyatt shined in the face of nationally ranked talent.
Wyatt scored 22 points and tied a career high with five steals in the Owls’ win against No. 5 Duke at the Wells Fargo Center in January of last season. Temple also knocked off No. 10 Georgetown in 2010, No. 3 Villanova in 2009 and No. 8 Tennessee in 2008.
Temple’s five consecutive seasons with wins as an unranked team upsetting a Top 10 program is the longest such streak in the country. Wyatt said this one was the best he’s been apart of.
“As a competitor we want to play against the best teams in the country,” Wyatt said. “Me personally, I just want to take on the challenge and live in the moment, and know that these opportunities don’t come every game.”
“We just come together at the right time,” Wyatt said. “We’ve got one of the best coaches in the country, and we just play for him.”
Despite the efforts of Orange junior forward C.J. Fair, who had a team high 25 points, Temple toppled Syracuse by dominating the free throw margin and making three-pointers when the Owls needed them.
The Owls went 29-for-36 (81 percent) at the line, while the Orange went 19-for-34 (56 percent). In a game that featured far too many fouls calls (both teams were in the double bonus with more than five minutes remaining), Temple and Syracuse got to the line an equal amount, but the Owls made their free throws at a much higher percentage.
Temple shot 8-for-24 (33 percent) from three, including 5-for-12 (42 percent) in the first half, and the Owls’ three treys in the second half came just as Syracuse was mounting its comeback.
The Orange tied the game with 13 minutes, 2 seconds remaining in the second half, three minutes after a Temple run saw the Owls gain their largest lead of the game at nine.
Teams began exchanging blows, and Temple hit back-to-back threes from redshirt-senior forward Scootie Randall and freshman guard Quenton DeCosey. Following the pair of treys, Temple led for the remainder of the game.
“We’ve got some experienced guys,” Wyatt said. “We’ve been down before, so we knew how to react. Guys made big shots and nobody had their head down. They made a couple of runs, but we played through both of them.”
The Owls got to the line and made shots to stay in the game in the first half, and added some timely three-point shooting.
Temple shot 9-for-10 (90 percent) from the charity stripe in the first half, while Syracuse shot 9-for-15 (60 percent). The Owls shot 5-for-12 (42 percent) from three, while the Orange were limited to 1-for-6 (17 percent) shooting from beyond the arc in the first half.
Syracuse led by 10 halfway through the first half, but Temple battled back with a 12-3 run and managed to tie the game in the first half’s final two minutes, before trailing by two at halftime.
In front of a crowd of 12,648, Wyatt led Temple all the way in his first ever game at Madison Square Garden. He led all scorers in the first half with 20 points on 7-for-12 shooting. Wyatt said he wanted to put on a show for the audience watching on national television on ESPN2.
“I made some big shots. I made some free throws. I just wanted to play hard. Just compete, that’s what I wanted to do,” Wyatt said. “I wanted to show the world that Temple is a good program. I wanted to broadcast that.”
“I think Khalif took the challenge, saying to himself, ‘I didn’t play very well the last time out and I need to make my team better,’ and he did,” Dunphy said. “He was spectacular. In the first half he made so many great plays, and in the second half he made every foul shot.”
Temple opened up the second half on a 13-2 run, with eight points scored by Lee in the first four minutes. Syracuse came right back with a 13-4 run of its own, but treys from Randall and Decosey retook the Temple lead.
Fair was the only Orangeman who mad free throws consistently for his team. He went 8-for-8 from the line, while the rest of the team combined to shoot 11-for-26. Fair hit four free throws in a row to cut the lead to four with 6:18 remaining, and added a trey to cut the lead to two with a little more than three minutes to play.
“They made their free throws and we didn’t,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “You don’t like to say it comes down to [free throws], but when you miss 15 free throws it is going to be tough to win any game.”
Plus, Wyatt was too good at the line down the stretch.
The Orangemen were forced to foul, and sent Wyatt to the line four times in the game’s final five minutes. He made all eight shots.
“[Wyatt’s] so good. He’s so talented. His IQ is off the charts on the court,” Dunphy said. “Off the charts. He knows where to go with the ball. He has great poise and sense of the game. And that fearlessness, when you go to the line and make all 15 foul shots, is pretty impressive. But I’m not surprised.”
“It’s a joy to watch,” Lee said. “I’m proud of him. It’s his last year, so I want to see him do well. When he’s playing really good, it opens up a lot of stuff and definitely makes our team better.”
Temple as a team went 9-for-12 from the line in the game’s final five minutes, including a crucial free throw from DeCosey to put the Owls’ up four with nine seconds remaining to ice the game.
DeCosey played a career high 22 minutes, scoring six points and grabbing a career high six rebounds.
“[DeCosey’s] going to be a really good player and it’s up to us to get him more minutes,” Dunphy said. “The last foul shot he made was big, a huge, huge foul shot. I was so happy for him. He’s done some good things.”
Lee, who has gotten into foul trouble early in games recently, committed three fouls while playing a career high 38 minutes. He shot 11-for-14 from the line.
“[Lee] took the challenge tremendously,” Dunphy said. “He had one reverse layup where I’m not even sure how he made the shot. He did a couple of great things out there. His foul shooting was remarkable. That certainly saved us.”
“I was able to be successful by being poised and gathering myself,” Lee said. “They fouled a lot, so I was just trying to go up strong. And I capitalized on the free throws. If I didn’t capitalize on the free throws, it would probably be a different story today.”
The Owls are now faced with the challenge of responding to a win that came mostly out of nowhere, an upset of the No. 3 team in the country in the 11th game of a season marked by inconsistency, despite success.
Temple has five days off before a new week begins on Dec. 28 with games against Detroit (7-5) and Bowling Green (5-6).
“Our kids have done a great job in responding to the challenge,” Dunphy said. “I wish it was worth more than one victory, that would be terrific. But it’s not. Now we have to get ready for Detroit and Bowling Green.”
Joey Cranney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @joey_cranney.