For nearly 30 minutes, Xavier Munford had the Owls backed up against the wall.
But on a bizarre sequence, senior guard Khalif Wyatt coughed up the ball and was called for a foul. A few seconds later Munford, Rhode Island’s junior guard and the second leading scorer in the Atlantic 10 Conference, was whistled for a technical.
“Maybe Munford thought they called a block on him,” Wyatt said. “I’m not sure but Munford got a technical foul and it was a big play in the game actually.”
Temple (21-8, 9-5 in the A-10) was clinging to a 52-51 lead off a dunk by sophomore guard Will Cummings when the whistle blew with 12 minutes, 27 seconds left in the game.
Wyatt connected on both freebies and the Owls never relinquished the lead after that. Temple extend their lead to 11, then allowed the Rams to tie it up at 64-64 with over six minutes to go. But the momentum had already shifted with Munford having to sit on the bench in foul trouble for critical stretches.
Temple went on to win their third straight A-10 match, 76-70, and keep pace with the top of the conference.
“We made a good run in the second half and we thought we had pretty good control of the game, but they’ve got some good players and Munford made some big shots,” Wyatt said. “And they got back in the game.”
“I’ve said, while we have been inconsistent we have also been very resilient,” coach Fran Dunphy said. “I do enjoy the resiliency of this particular group.”
The game was nothing short of a shootout in the opening half as both teams shot at least 50 percent from the field. And from long range both squads exchanged blows. The Rams went seven-of-12 from down town and the Owls matched them blow for blow, connecting on six of their 12 three-point attempts.
“We weren’t really happy with our defense in the first half but they made some tough shots,” Wyatt said. “They were shooting it really good in the first half and we did a good job making shots, staying with them, staying with them.”
“I don’t know where the misses were but I didn’t see many of them,” Dunphy said. “Then I looked at our stat and we were a couple percentage points ahead of them. I didn’t see that either.”
Normally a catalyst of the Owls three-point game, graduate senior forward Jake O’Brien made just two of six from beyond the arc as he played center for sophomore Anthony Lee, who was out with a hip pointer.
“Jake has really helped us immeasurably throughout the year,” Dunphy said. “He goes for 10 rebounds today, too. I can’t say that’s his forte.”
“It’ll be a day-to-day thing,” Dunphy said of Lee’s injury. “I’m hoping he’ll be ready to go Wednesday but there’s no assurances of that.”
Despite the offensive outburst Temple started out slow, and went into the half trailing 37-36. The Rams opened up a five-point lead to start the second, but Temple chipped away thanks to the duo of Wyatt and Cummings.
Battling with Munford, who shot 12-of-23 for 30 points, Wyatt and Cummings tagged teamed throughout the game to create a change of pace that turned out to be the deciding factor.
Wyatt finished with 24 points, but Cummings’s hustle at critical points in the second half created loose ball scenarios for the Owls or added extra possessions Dunphy said. Cummings finished with a career high 15 points and added four steals as well.
“That’s what he can do,” Dunphy said. “He’s certainly our fastest guy and maybe our best athlete in all honesty.”
“Just seeing openings and taking advantage of it and not thinking twice about it,” Cummings said. “Just reacting when an opening comes open. Just playing basketball how I learned to play basketball when I was younger.”
O’Brien recorded a double-double with 15 points and 10 boards. Senior forward Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson added a game-high 13 rebounds and five assists as well despite his six points.
The two were largely responsible for Temple’s dominance in the second half in rebounds. The Owls out-rebounded the Rams 29-14 in the second half.
“They both held down the paint for us today,” Wyatt said. “I think they did a pretty good job.”
Temple now sits tied for fourth with Butler in the A-10 and is looking to grab a first-round bye in the tournament come March 14.
After two games in three days the Owls will take Sunday off before returning to practice the next day. Their next game is Wednesday when they head to New York to take on Fordham. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m.
Jake Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jakeadams520.