For Temple to have any shot at beating the Syracuse, the Owls had to step up by committee under the brightest of lights at the world’s most famous arena in the marquee matchup of the Gotham Classic.
That came to fruition for the Owls (9-2) as Khalif Wyatt and Anthony Lee had career days to hand No. 3 Syracuse (10-1) their first lost of the season by a score of 83-79.
With this victory, Temple has now defeated a top ten team for the fifth year in a row.
“I think our guys understand how big the moment is coming into New York city and in Madison Square Garden,” Temple coach Fran Dunphy said after the game.
After multiple games of inconsistent play, everything finally came together for Temple and the Owls got a gutsy performance from Wyatt, who scored a career high 33 points, including 20 in the first half.
Down the stretch Wyatt was able to hit big time free throws. The senior guard went a perfect 15-15 from the line and 8-17 from the floor overall.
“(Khalif) was spectacular,” Dunphy said. “In the first half he made so many great plays, in the second half obviously he made every foul shot he took but he made some very good plays when we were struggling to score and that was the only way we were going to stay in the game with Khalif making plays.”
Early on, Syracuse proved to be the more superior team and the Orange jumped out to a 24-14 lead midway through the first half behind senior guard Brandon Triche, who started 4-4 from the field.
Syracuse had the obvious size advantage in the post and utilized that with second chance baskets, but Wyatt put Temple on his back and kept Temple close in the first frame. He shot 7-12 from the field in the first half alone, to help silence the Syracuse heavy crowd and ignite cheers for the cherry and white.
“(Khalif) is so good, he’s so talented. His IQ is off the charts on the court. Off the charts and so he knows where to go with the ball. He has great poise and sense of the game and again that fearlessness,” Dunphy said.
Coming off a season high 14 points vs. Canisius on Wednesday, Jake O’Brien provided the Owls with a boost to help Temple climb back in the game. From the 9:13 to the 7:36 mark of the first half, O’Brien notched 8 points to pull the Owls within two points, which seemingly got the Owls into a solid rhythm.
The rest was all Wyatt, who always seems to play his best on the biggest of stages. Wyatt hit a clutch three with 30 seconds left in the first half to reduce the Syracuse lead to 40-38.
Madison Square Garden is known to be Syracuse’s “home away from home”, and the orange shirts were out in full force but the Temple faithful exceeded all expectations, making the atmosphere inside the arena that much more intriguing.
“They call it the mecca of basketball,” Wyatt said in the locker room after the game. “I’ve never played here before. I always wanted to. I always watched it on (television). I know Michael Jordan had great games here and it was a lot of great games that have been played here and I just wanted to be apart of the chance to play at the garden and it was a good experience.”
Syracuse and Temple chants were exchanged back and forth and although the arena was not sold out, two of the winningest programs in the history of college basketball clashed to form a fantastic ballgame at the garden.
Temple stormed out of the gates after halftime behind sophomore forward Lee, who also had the best game of his young career. Lee poured in a career high 21 points and 10 rebounds.
With the Owls climbing back in the game and taking a lead 9 point lead, Syracuse began to put on the pressure and caused fits for the Owls with a full court press that got the Orange back in the game.
Temple hadn’t faced a full court press for long stretches this season and looked out of sorts, but stayed composed, which led to fast break points.
“(Syracuse) made a big run. I think we was up nine at one point, they started pressing, spread the game up a little bit,” Wyatt said. We composed ourselves, got together, made some big shots , made some free throws down the stretch and came out with a big win.
Behind C.J. Fair’s 25 points, and Triche’s 17, the Orange stayed in it until the end, but missed free throws cost Syracuse down the stretch. The Orange went 19-34 from the line, whereas Temple went 29-36 at the foul line.
Foul shots turned out to be the difference in this game.
“You don’t like to say it comes down to that (free-throws), but when you miss 15 free-throwss it is going to be tough to win any game. Bottom line is they made 29 and we made 19,” Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said. “That is not a way to win tough games if you are not going to shoot the ball better from the free throw line.”
Temple will now have off until Friday, December 28th when Detroit comes to town for the fourth and final game of the Gotham Classic.
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