Among the 2,430 at Smith Center on a cold, dank Wednesday evening, there was more pregame talk about whether it would snow than what a George Washington win over Temple might mean to a program trying to find itself after five lost seasons.
When it was over, both teams had, in a sense, accomplished their missons: Temple survived on a night when it scored six points in the game’s first 13 minutes. GW made it clear it could compete with an elite Atlantic 10 team — at least at home — but wasn’t ready to get the statement victory it still needs and wants.
“We were lucky to only be down 10 at the half,” said Khalif Wyatt, Temple’s leading scorer. “I thought we missed some pretty good shots.”
Wyatt is one of those players who thinks a good shot is anything that takes place from somewhere inside the building. Some games — like Temple’s victory over Syracuse in December in which he scored 33 points — Wyatt does make shots from anywhere in the gym. Wednesday wasn’t one of those nights. GW freshman Patricio Garino hounded him into 5-of-18 shooting, forcing him into taking some shots that must have made Temple Coach Fran Dunphy wish he was in Florida playing golf with his old boss, Gary Williams.
“Some nights are longer than others,” Dunphy said. “This group just struggles at times to score and to get good shots. It can be very frustrating. But they hang in there, they play defense and tonight that was just enough.”
Just enough. GW and Coach Mike Lonergan had to walk away from the evening knowing a great chance had been squandered. Oh sure, there was some muttering to be done about some late calls (actually Lonergan didn’t mutter: he jumped, twirled and screamed as if his house was burning down) and there were a lot of good things — notably at the defensive end — to take away from the game. But when you hold an opponent to 41 percent shooting and more turnovers than assists and you’re playing at home, you should win the game.
Coming close isn’t the measuring stick. Winning programs like Temple find ways to win on nights when they should probably lose. Teams that are learning to win after a five-season stretch that produced a 63-85 record find a way to lose. Lonergan is starting four freshmen because he told his players before the season that playing time would be predicated on who was playing the best on defense. That gives him experience off the bench but means there are going to be considerable growing pains.
Wednesday was painful.
Dunphy can relate. He had back-to-back losing seasons to start his head coaching career at Pennsylvania and was 12-18 in his first season at Temple in 2006-07, so he understands what Lonergan, who went 11-21 in his first season at GW a year ago, is going through.
For Dunphy, this was a sigh-of-relief game. His team has had a Jekyll-Hyde quality to it this season: in the same week that the Owls beat Syracuse, they lost at home to Canisius. Dunphy worked for Williams years ago at American and can still fill an evening with stories from those days. He’s been a head coach for 24 years now and his teams at Penn and Temple have been remarkably consistent. He won nine Ivy League titles at Penn and, in all likelihood, will take Temple to a sixth straight NCAA tournament bid this season in what might be the third-most difficult conference in the country.
The only hole in an otherwise superb coaching resume is a lack of NCAA tournament wins. Dunphy has never reached the Sweet Sixteen in 14 trips to the tournament, though he has almost always lost to a higher-seeded team because the tournament committee rarely gives the credit deserved to non-BCS conference schools.
“I would love to go deeper in the tournament, obviously,” he said. “Maybe sometimes we’ve been unlucky. But all I ask for year-to-year is that we get a chance to be in the tournament and try to take it from there. If this team does that and we get a shot then I’ll be very happy.”
It will have to improve a good deal between now and mid-March to do that. This isn’t Dunphy’s best team, but he will figure out a way to get them into the bracket on Selection Sunday. He changed his starting lineup on Wednesday and said after the game he’ll continue to tinker because he doesn’t want his players to feel entitled.
That was the way Temple played in the first half: As if it was entitled to win just for showing up. Even when the Owls figured out they were in a real game, they didn’t take a lead until Wyatt made two free throws for a 54-53 lead with 2 minutes 2 seconds left. GW had chances, including two missed shots just before the buzzer, but managed not to score in the last 7:43.
Credit Temple’s defense. Blame the Colonials’ inexperience.
The irony in it all is that GW’s basketball future is clearer right now than Temple’s: The Colonials are part of an Atlantic 10 that will lose Temple next year to what’s left of the Big East and perhaps Xavier, Dayton and Butler to the unnamed Catholic Seven league. The Atlantic 10, though, is on much more solid ground right now than the Big East.
“Who knows what will happen,” Dunphy said. “It’s all been football-driven and that won’t change. But there may be a dozen more changes coming before next season.”
He smiled a very tired smile. “Right now, all I can do is worry about St. Bonaventure on Saturday,” he said.
He headed into the night to do just that (the Owls ended up falling, 81-78, their first-ever home loss to the Bonnies). Lonergan was still in his locker room at that moment, not ready just yet to start thinking about Massachusetts on Saturday.
Wins are a lot easier to put behind you than losses.
For more by John Feinstein, go to www.washingtonpost.com/feinstein.