DAYTON, Ohio – As the buzzer sounded to signal the end of the game, Khalif Wyatt didn’t cry.
Unlike many prolific players who realize their time has come to an end, the senior guard was uncharacteristically not emotional.
Wyatt walked to his right and high-fived a referee before getting in line to shake hands with the Indiana players. It wasn’t until after the huddle with his teammates, his final huddle, that his emotions got the best of him. He walked off the court embracing freshman forward Daniel Dingle.
Wyatt scored 31 points in each of Temple’s games in the NCAA tournament. In the second-round win against North Carolina State on March 22, Wyatt propelled Temple to its second tournament win in 12 years. Wyatt also scored the most points in a tournament game for an Owl since 1991. When he equaled his total in a loss to No. 1 Indiana two days later, Wyatt became the fourth player in 10 years to score 30 or more points in the first two games of the NCAA tournament. But the numbers don’t tell the whole story.
When Wyatt and his 6-foot, 4-inch, 210-pound frame entered Temple in 2009, he managed 19 minutes and five points off the bench throughout the course of the season. While he only officially gained five pounds in his four-year stint at Temple, his coach described the transformation as a mental journey.
“In the beginning he had his way of doing things and I had mine,” coach Fran Dunphy said. “We were trying to get together on it, but he was a pain in the butt sometimes, and he’ll be the first to tell you. But he’s grown, and that’s what happens.”
Wyatt’s abrasive and emotional personality clashed initially with Dunphy.
“He was just getting used to me and me to him,” Dunphy said. “We didn’t hit it off all that great when he was a freshman, but he hung in there and stuck with it.”
Wyatt emerged as the Atlantic 10 Conference Sixth Man of the Year in 2011 before solidifying himself in the starting lineup in 2011-12 season. After being named to the Second Team All-A-10 Conference as a junior, Wyatt entered his senior year as the team’s top scoring option.
Wyatt’s body of work in his senior season included seven 30-point games, a scoring average of 20.5 points per game and an A-10 Player of the Year award. In two NCAA tournament games, Wyatt showed why he was so valuable.
“I just want to go out there and seize the opportunity,” Wyatt said on March 21. “You’re on a national stage and a lot of people are watching, you get a chance to show the world what you can do. You don’t get chances like this very often, so you just want to go out there and make the most of it.”
Wyatt did. Leading the team to the victory against North Carolina State, Wyatt played the majority of the second half with an injured left thumb. While he was in obvious pain, he was able to score six of Temple’s final eight points.
“He’s got ice water in his veins,” Dunphy said. “He’s as tough as a competitor as I’ve had the opportunity to coach. He just wants the moment.”
Wyatt’s next moment came against No. 1 Indiana. The Hoosiers deployed junior guard Victor Oladipo, the Big 10 Conference Defensive Player of the Year, to slow down Wyatt. Wyatt however, scored 20 points in the first half and 31 on the day. In a game where three Temple players hit field goals, Wyatt had the Owls within two minutes of shocking the nation. While the upset bid fell short, his teammates’ praise did not.
“I think everyone gave their effort,” graduate forward Jake O’Brien said. “Khalif carried as much as he could. It just really came down to making shots. They made their shots, we didn’t make our shots when they counted.”
Wyatt excelled all season with his ability to hit big, acrobatic and seemingly impossible shots when it counted. While he shot 41 percent from the field on the year, his ability to get to the free throw line led to finishing the year with 204 made free throws, a Temple record. His ability to hit shots that other player’s wouldn’t take earned him praise from his teammates and coaches.
“I know my teammates trust me, and I know my coaches trust me,” Wyatt said. “They are always encouraging me when I’m missing shots, when I’m not shooting the ball well, to keep shooing. They need me to score. They need me to take big shots. As long as I know I have my teammates and my coach’s trust, it’s really up to me to just go out there and play.”
“Over the course of his career, there have probably been a hundred times when I have said, ‘What are you doing?’” Dunphy said. “All of the sudden the ball goes in the basket because that’s the kind of player he is…you live with what Khalif gives you. Most of it is good, and there’s some that will drive you a little bit crazy.”
While Wyatt was able to jump into the national spotlight four years after being buried on the Temple bench, he said taking moral victories, at this juncture wasn’t possible.
“It really doesn’t do anything for me, not right now at least,” Wyatt said. “We competed really hard, we battled…it was fun while it lasted, we just didn’t come out on top. It is really disappointing but I’m just proud of our year we had and just try to keep our heads up.”
Despite seeing five players play their final game at Temple after the Indiana loss, the loss of Wyatt, Dunphy’s four-year project, most likely comes with the biggest emotional toll.
“Now he’s a very low-maintenance guy,” Dunphy said. “Early in his career he was killing me with the high maintenance. But I’m glad it all worked out. He’s going to be graduating from Temple University in May, and I couldn’t be more proud of him and how he has turned out as a man.”
Ibrahim Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ibrahimjacobs.