The seniors came through on senior day, leading Temple (23-8, 11-5 Atlantic 10 Conference) to an 84-76 victory against No. 21 Virginia Commonwealth (24-7, 12-4 A-10) on Sunday at the Liacouras Center in Temple’s last regular season A-10 game.
Senior guard Khalif Wyatt led the Owls with 30 points and four steals. Graduate forward Jake O’Brien added 19 points and three blocks and senior forward Scootie Randall had 13 points and nine rebounds.
“We showed some poise, we didn’t panic,” Wyatt said. “They made a couple runs, [but] we didn’t panic and controlled the pace as much as we could.”
“As of late, the last six or seven games, we just came together and we’ve been playing for one another,” Wyatt added.
O’Brien made five three-point shots, a season high.
“[O’Brien’s] a mismatch when he gets an open three, definitely,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said.
The two halves were like two separate games. In the first half, the Owls shot 38.5 percent from the field, including a 27 percent mark from behind the three-point line. The Rams shot 53 percent from the field and hit all six three point shots they took.
In the second half, Temple shot 56 percent from the field, as well as 54 percent from three-point range. VCU shot just 39 percent from the field and 22 percent from behind the arc .
“There are still moments of inconsistency and still moments of not knowing what’s happening,” coach Fran Dunphy said. “But I think, for the most part, this group has established themselves as a very resilient group and now hopefully we can move on and do a good job in our conference tournament.”
Dunphy said Wyatt played a sound defensive game, something that can’t often be said.
“I thought [Wyatt’s] defense was good as it’s been all year long,” Dunphy said. “You haven’t heard me say that in a long time.”
Temple was able to break VCU’s full-court press defense, called “havoc.” Prior to today’s game, VCU averaged 12.2 steals and forced 20.1 turnovers per game. The Owls turned the ball over 13 times today, which included five steals.
“It comes back to defense,” Smart said. “We’ve got to hang our hat on our defense no matter what’s happening on the offensive end, and we did not do that today.”
Temple started off the game with a 12-3 run, but VCU stormed back with an 18-0 run to take a nine-point advantage. VCU made eight shots in this stretch, without missing or going to the free throw line.
“We dug ourselves a hole, but we’ve been in positions like that before,” O’Brien said. “It helps to have a veteran group, guys that have been there before. We just played under control, played our game and were able to go on a run.”
VCU’s largest lead was 16 points, which it held on three separate occasions. The latest it held that lead was the 3:49 minute mark of the first half, when VCU led Temple 41-25. From that point on, Temple outscored VCU 59-35, starting with an 11-0 run to close the first half.
“You just can’t get comfortable, and maybe we got a little comfortable,” VCU senior guard Darius Theus said. “They took advantage of it in that last stretch of three minutes in the first half.”
“We played like it was a tie game throughout the whole game, even when we had stretches where we had a big lead,” O’Brien said. “We knew going in that VCU goes on runs. That’s what they do, so we had to combat that and play our game.”
The Owls took the lead for good with 14:40 to go in the second half, when O’Brien hit a three-pointer to put Temple in front 51-48. Temple stretched the lead as high as 17 points before allowing VCU to slightly close the gap.
Temple is next in action at the A-10 tournament in Brooklyn on Friday, March 15 at 9 p.m. The Owls will play the winner of sixth-seeded Massachusetts and 11th-seeded George Washington, who play Thursday, March 14 at 9 p.m.
Evan Cross can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @EvanCross.