Thursday, January 5, 2012

Khalif Wyatt Earp and Scenes from the Upset

Wyatt Earp was known as one of the deadliest gunman of his day, a sharpshooter who became famous for his part in the Shootout at the O.K. Corral. Last night, it was another Wyatt doing the sharpshooting, as Temple's amply named Khalif Wyatt scored a game-high 22 points to lead the Owls to an improbable 78-73 upset victory over the top-five ranked Duke Blue Devils in Philadelphia.

And I was lucky enough to be there in the Wells Fargo Center to witness perhaps the biggest upset I've ever actually been at. It was glorious.

The thing that made the win so special was the fact that on paper, this game shouldn't have even been close. The Owls are down two starters in the injured Scootie Randall, who very well may redshirt, and center Michael Eric, leaving them not only undermanned, but extremely undersized. The two tallest players to take the court for Temple were 6'9" freshman Anthony Lee and 6'6" junior Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson. No chance the Owls could hold their own against on of the biggest Duke teams of recent memory thanks to a frontcourt led by the 6'10" Plumlee brothers and the versatile 6'11" Ryan Kelly. At least, that's what we thought.

Heading into the game, silver fox, Toonces and I all thought this was going to be a blowout in favor of the bad guys, and we pretty much braced ourselves for an unenjoyable evening. Adding to that frustration was the fact that a slew of people who apparently can't read kept trying to force their way into the wrong seats because they've apparently never been to a basketball game before. Idiots all around us were searching for seats, taking the wrong seats, standing up and blocking the court and generally being complete assholes. If you can't read a ticket and find your seat, you should not be allowed in the building, simple as that. It's not hard, unless you're a fucking moron. Last night, there were a lot of fucking morons.

To make matters worse, a crew of what looked like well-to-do businessmen sat next to us in our row … and got up all the damn time. Like, during game action, just nonchalantly got up or tried to force their way back to their seats while we were, you know, trying to watch the game. People like that should just stay the fuck home or at least have the courtesy to wait until there's a stoppage in play to make real fans who are actually watching the game get up.

I really hated those guys, though it could have been worse. A couple rows in front of us, an innocent old man got a good portion of beer spilled on him as a girl bit it walking up the steps and dropped a freshly poured brew. Glad I wasn't that guy, that's for sure.

Then when you combined all that with a large portion of blue spread around the arena, it made for what could have been an absolutely brutal night. Only the Owls wouldn't let it happen.

Right from the opening tip, you could see Temple wasn't going to back down, no matter how big and highly touted the Blue Devils were. Khalif Wyatt started hot, scoring 6 quick points, and Temple fought hard defensively to make Duke earn everything.

Before you could blink, Temple was playing the front-runner, and they never looked back.

I was stunned for a number of reasons, but mainly because of Duke's strategy. Given Temple's lack of size and Duke's big advantage inside, I expected the Blue Devils to pound the ball down low to Mason and Miles Plumlee, along with allowing Kelly to shoot over smaller players — forcing Temple to double and then kicking it out to shooters like Seth Curry, Andre Dawkins and Austin Rivers. Only Duke didn't really do that all that much. Yes, Anthony Lee and Jefferson did a tremendous job fronting and making entry passes difficult, but damn near every time one of the Plumlees got the ball inside, they scored. Temple simply had no answer, evident by Mason's 16-point, 13-rebound performance and Miles' remarkably efficient 8-11 shooting for 17 points.

And yet, Duke either didn't or couldn't consistently go inside, and Temple took advantage. Wyatt was out of this world shooting the ball, going 8-12 from the field, 3-5 from beyond the arc and putting in a couple daggers in the 2nd half when it looked like Duke may make its push. Ramone Moore efficiently worked off screens and got to the hoop, chipping in with 11 big points, a lot of which came when the red hot Wyatt was on the bench with 4 fouls. Hollis-Jefferson played perhaps the best game of his career, scoring 17 points on 7-10 from the field, 3-3 from the line and somehow managing 6 rebounds despite his height disadvantage.

It was just a total team effort, something Duke was lacking. Where Anthony Lee hit huge buckets and played sound defense, Ryan Kelly went MIA. Where Juan Fernandez, despite some turnover troubles, refused to force things and came up with some spectacular late-game passes, Seth Curry wilted from the spotlight. Where Aaron Brown hit clutch free throws (something the rest of the Owls didn't do) and gave hard-fought minutes guarding players nearly a foot taller, Andre Dawkins was nowhere to be found.

Even T.J. DiLeo, a player who always works hard but rarely stands out, came up with two huge steals, hounding defense and a spark when Fernandez was banged up or Wyatt was on the bench.

Here were the Owls, a collection of players who are unquestionably good but nowhere near McDonald's All-American talents, outworking and outplaying Duke, on national television no less, while the heralded Blue Devils seemed stunned.

The craziest thing was watching a player like Wyatt come out and shine, playing with the utmost confidence and absolutely no fear, while the much more highly touted and well-known Austin Rivers shrunk away. I have to tell you, I was actually really looking forward to see Rivers play in person. I've heard so much about him and have had several people tell me how otherworldly his skills are. Not last night. No, last night, Rivers was, quite frankly, awful, doing more complaining than executing.

He shot a miserable 3-11 from the field, had just 2 assists to 3 turnovers, and looked all-around unimpressive. I'm sure it was just a bad night, made worse by a clearly hungry and veteran Temple team hounding him all game. But I was absolutely underwhelmed and truthfully annoyed that Rivers was flopping and whining the same way Rakeem Christmas did when I saw him in person for the first time, almost as if he deserved more from the refs because he's Austin Rivers and he plays for Duke and, oh by the way, do you know who his dad is?

Very disappointing, yet not disappointing at all because I hate Duke so much.

That hatred certainly helped make the atmosphere that much greater. The Temple students were just itching to explode, and the Owls gave them plenty of reasons to. I was freaking out, yelling and jumping up and enjoying the excitement more than I have at a college basketball game in a long while. And you could just feel the electricity in the building.

As the game went on and Temple still maintained its lead, you could feel the place was ready to erupt. With more than two minutes left, the Temple students starting pushing forward anticipating the upset and preparing to storm the court — a little too prematurely to be honest given the talent and the shooting ability of Duke, but I can't blame them. I'd have done the same thing if I was them.

Thankfully, there was no Duke comeback, even though Temple missed entirely too many free throws down the stretch to leave the door open. They simply wouldn't let this one slip away. When the final buzzer went off, the students flocked on the hardwood and I took it all in. I was so incredibly pumped I even surprised myself, yelling at some Duke fans on our way back to subway, then out celebrating with drinks and late-night cheesesteaks while honoring the birthday boy Toonces.

It was an all-around awesome night. My two favorite things in college basketball are Temple winning and Duke losing. Last night, I got to witness them both happen in the same game thanks in large part to the sharpshooting of Khalif Wyatt and a relentless team effort by the Owls. It doesn't get much better than that.

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