NEW YORK (AP) Temple’s season could have ended in mid-March with the Owls still sagging from their NCAA Tournament snub.
Playing three days after the selection committee made them the first team left out of the field, they came out sluggish in their NIT opener and trailed with just over 11 minutes left.
Then their senior point guard, Will Cummings, ensured his college career would last much longer than those 11 minutes. Ever since, Temple has looked sharp, and now the Owls are headed to Madison Square Garden for Tuesday’s NIT semifinals.
”I would love to tell you that it was a coaching decision and we had these profound statements that just dragged our guys to a whole different level,” coach Fran Dunphy said Monday. ”I will tell you the reality is it’s more Will Cummings and the people within the group.”
The news on Selection Sunday was ”devastating,” Dunphy recalled. Turning that devastation to motivation to excel in the NIT isn’t as simple as it sounds.
”Before that kid decided to go crazy, we were on that edge,” Dunphy said. ”I think everybody’s on that edge. You don’t really know where you are.”
That kid was Cummings. With Bucknell in the lead on Temple’s home court March 18, he scored nine of the Owls’ next 11 points over a 4 1/2-minute span to put them in front for good. Will willed his team to victory with a season-high 30 points.
Temple went on to win its next two games comfortably over George Washington and Louisiana Tech.
”We were really back to our old selves, playing basketball and not really thinking about the NCAA Tournament,” Cummings said.
Considering that the Owls added two transfers to the rotation at the end of the fall semester, this team may still be improving as the calendar approaches April.
”The chemistry is great right now,” said senior guard Jesse Morgan, the UMass transfer who is Temple’s third-leading scorer since becoming eligible in December. ”Team morale is up. We’re having fun together.”
The Owls (26-10) stunned Kansas in the second game for Morgan and Clemson transfer Devin Coleman, but the selection committee didn’t think Temple had enough other quality wins.
Quality wins weren’t the problem for the Owls’ semifinal opponent, Miami (24-12), which won at Duke by 16 in January. But bad losses were an issue, with the Hurricanes falling to Eastern Kentucky, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest.
In the NIT, Miami has outlasted North Carolina Central, Alabama and Richmond mostly without point guard Angel Rodriguez, who’s been sidelined by a nagging wrist injury. Coach Jim Larranaga has been downplaying his chances of playing Tuesday, though Temple is preparing as if he’ll be on the court.
Stanford and Old Dominion meet in the second semifinal Tuesday. The Cardinal won the NIT three years ago, a promising omen for their young players. Stanford made good on that with a Sweet 16 run last season, upsetting second-seeded Kansas along the way.
The Cardinal (22-13) seemed on track to return to the NCAA Tournament this season, starting out 6-2 in Pac-12 play. But Stanford lost seven of its last 10 regular-season games amid a rash of injuries.
Senior guard Chasson Randle, a freshman on the NIT title team, is just 11 points away from becoming the school’s all-time leading scorer. Todd Lichti holds the record with 2,336 points.
Old Dominion (27-7) got itself in the NCAA Tournament conversation with nonconference wins over LSU and VCU, but a loss to Middle Tennessee in its Conference USA Tournament opener dashed those hopes.
The Monarchs’ coach, Jeff Jones, was the first person to win the NIT both as a player and head coach (at Virginia). When Jones ran the point on the 1980 NIT championship team, one of the Cavaliers’ assistants was Larranaga. But before this week, Larranaga, a Bronx native who played in Madison Square Garden for Providence, had never walked the sideline in the arena as a head coach.