Wyatt, seniors rally Temple past No. 21 VCU on Senior Day

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Wyatt, seniors rally Temple past No. 21 VCU on Senior Day

BOX SCORE

His team was down 16 points in the first half, VCU was 6 for 6 from three, the full-court press was on, HAVOC had ensued, the Rams were on a 28-7 run and Temple coach Fran Dunphy felt …

Good?

"That stretch in the first half, we were in a timeout -- we got rocked a little bit. We were punched right in the forehead," Dunphy said.

"But we just talked about the fact that they had made their run now, and I feel good about where we are. [I wasn't] all that thrilled we were down 16 points, but I felt like we had a chance to gather ourselves."

Thus making the the new definition of Gather (v.) -- To outscore your opponent by 24 points the rest of the way and totally run away with a basketball game in the second half.

Behind a game-high and characteristically unorthodox 30 points from Khalif Wyatt, Temple rallied from a 16-point, first-half deficit to down No. 21 VCU, 84-76, Sunday at the Liacouras Center (see Instant Replay).

The victory extends Temple's season-long winning streak to seven games and advances it to 23-8 overall and 11-5 in conference. The Owls are now riding their longest unbeaten streak since starting the season 6-0, have claimed their second victory over a Top 25 opponent in five tries and look in solid shape for their sixth straight NCAA tournament appearance.

The win also makes Temple the No. 3 seed in this week's Atlantic 10 tournament, giving the Owls a first-round bye on Thursday and pitting them against the winner of UMass-George Washington on Friday at 9 p.m.

All this for a team that lost to Duquesne (8-22, 1-15) on Feb. 14 and has gone undefeated since.

"[This win] felt great for so many different reasons," said Wyatt, who went 8 for 18 from the field, 1 for 8 from three, 13 for 16 from the foul line and was asked to put Temple's season into context. "We've had an up-and-down year all year. I think, of late, the last six or seven games, we just came together. We've been playing for one another and guys have been making shots and we've been playing defense and we've just been having fun, really.

"It's just great being out there with those guys."

Wyatt was one of five players honored before the game on Sunday. He, T.J. DiLeo, Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson, Jake O'Brien and Scootie Randall all played -- barring an NCAA tournament slight -- their last game at the Liacouras Center, combining to score 71 of Temple's 84 points.

"Their seniors led the way," VCU coach Shaka Smart said. "They did what really good seniors do on Senior Day -- they took control of the game. Even when we had a lead, they didn't get rattled."

It would have been easy get that way. That's what the Rams' "HAVOC," full-court press defense is based on -- rattling the opponent. But when they really should have been trailing by much more at the break -- Temple was down 16 points on two separate occasions -- the Owls found themselves behind by just five, 41-36, heading into the locker room.

VCU shot 52.1 percent from the field in the first half and went a perfect 6 for 6 from three but was held scoreless for the final 3:10 of the frame, allowing Temple to close the half on an 11-0 run. That was just the beginning of a comeback that eventually propelled the Owls to a 17-point, second-half lead. From the time they trailed 41-25 with 3:49 to play in the first, Temple won the remainder of the game, 59-35.

Temple and VCU both put together stretches during which they outscored the other by at least 19. VCU went 28-6 in the first half, and Temple 26-7 from the first and into the second.

"Basketball is a game of runs," said Smart, who characterized his team as not having its usual fire and intensity.

So what changed to halt one run and kick start another?

"Well, the main thing is, they only press off of makes. So if you can make them miss, they can't set up their press," Wyatt said. "We tried to get stops, and the more stops we get, the more times we could get the ball over halfcourt without any havoc."

And that's largely how the remainder of the game played out. VCU cooled off considerably in the second half, going 12 for 31 from the field and just 2 for 9 from three. As their shots stopped falling, the Owls began exploiting holes in the Rams' less-vaunted half-court defense and started teeing off from three. Temple made 7 of 13 tries from beyond the arc in the second half and were led at game's end by O'Brien's season-high five threes.

"Most importantly for them, they made a lot of shots, O'Brien made a ton of them, out of transition and out of our press, and that made us pay," Smart said.

"[O'Brien] wasn't so much a defensive mismatch -- it's not that we don't have someone who can guard him -- but he made us pay out [when we were] out of rotation in our press. So he's a mismatch when he gets an open three, definitely. He made five out of eight of them today."

The two biggest came when O'Brien tied the game at 46-46 on a three-pointer 4:06 into the second half and then gave Temple its first lead in nearly 20 minutes, 51-48, on another three from the left wing. The Owls never trailed again and O'Brien finished with 19 points.

"Jake O'Buckets did his thing," Dunphy said.

And now the Owls will try to do their thing this week in Brooklyn in their final Atlantic 10 tournament. Temple's win on Sunday improved its all-time A-10 regular-season record to 376-132, giving the Owls the most wins in league history. The program also owns the most conference tournament titles in history, with nine. Dunphy has won three in his first six years at Temple.

It's arguably the deepest field in league history and a surprise winner would take away one of the four or five at-large bids the conference's top teams are banking on. But even if the Owls were to go one-and-done in Brooklyn, they've now done enough to get into the field of 68 -- right?

"It's not up to us, but I'd like to think so," Wyatt said. "We've still got a lot of basketball and we're going to do to Brooklyn on Friday. We'll take it one game at a time let the committee do its job.

"I heard we played the winner out of George Washington and UMass and both of the teams played us really tight. … All the games should be good. Brooklyn should be a good tournament. Hopefully we just stay together and continue to play good basketball."

Knowing the Owls, they'll probably find a way to make things interesting.

Penn Relays: After long climb, English Gardner's life is on track

Penn Relays: After long climb, English Gardner's life is on track

The brick wall separating the stands from the track within Franklin Field is, perhaps, six feet tall.

The first time English Gardner attended the Penn Relays, as a 12-year-old, she rushed to that barrier and looked down upon the competitors milling about before an event. She was a budding sprinter then, and admittedly "kind of a crazy kid, and very confident in my abilities."

Spotting Lauryn Williams, the great American sprinter, Gardner delivered a simple message.

"I'm gonna take your job one day," she screamed.

Who knew then that far more imposing barriers would lie ahead? That making the leap from the stands to the track would be the least of her worries?

***

Gardner, a Philadelphia native who graduated from Eastern High School in Voorhees, New Jersey, was back at the Relays this weekend, running 100-meter legs in the victorious women's sprint medley relay and the second-place 4x100 relay, as part of Saturday's USA vs. the World competition.

It was maybe the sixth or seventh time she has competed at the event over the years, she said one day earlier. This time, she returned as an Olympic champion, having been part of the 4x100 relay team that won gold last summer in Rio.

As the 25-year-old Gardner sat in a news conference Friday, she seemed every bit as bubbly and self-assured as she had been all those years ago. She was wide-eyed. She laughed easily. She talked about personal records and putting on a show this weekend.

Long gone were the vestiges of depression, with which she had struggled late in 2015 and in the early months of last year. Her first public discussion of her battle with that disease had been with SI.com's Lindsay Schnell on the eve of the Rio Games, and she talked about it again when she was pulled aside following Friday's presser.

It had been "a slow descent," Gardner said, and it left her in a deep, dark place. She recovered only with the help of professionals, as well as her family. And now she appears to be all the way back.

"I believe to be able to rebuild, stuff has to be destroyed, and that was my moment," she said. "I needed to be broken down. I needed to destroy it and now I'm back and I'm better, I'm stronger, I'm more confident and I'm just a totally different person. I'm having fun with track again, and that's what it's all about."

Her openness about her affliction was born of a desire to help others. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 15 million American adults struggle with depression. That's 6.7 percent of the United States' population, aged 18 and older.

"The thoughts that I had — suicide and stuff like that — those thoughts are real," she said. "I thought that sharing my story last year would give someone hope — let them know there's other options than that option."

According to Schnell's story, Gardner's mom, Monica, believed her daughter — the second-oldest of four children born to her and her husband, Anthony — was destined for great things from birth, and as a result gave her a distinctive first name "that people would remember, something that sounded good over a loudspeaker."

That proved to be the case. She starred at Eastern, then won two NCAA 100-meter outdoor championships, as well as a 60-meter indoor title, during her three years at Oregon.

After turning pro in 2013, she sought not only to harness her considerable physical abilities but also her emotions. She was too skittish, her coach told her, too ridden by anxiety.

As a result, she said, "I basically created an alter ego where I can contain her and gear her only toward getting my goals, and that's getting a gold medal."

She took to calling this thing "Baby Beast."

"I just needed to contain her," she said, "because she was running wild, all over the place."

She finished second in the 100 at the USATF outdoor meet in the spring of 2015, but by that fall her fortunes had turned. A torn hamstring was limiting her on the track. She and her coach were not on the same page. 

"All these things kind of weighed down on me," she said. "My love life was crappy. Spiritually I had kind of gotten away [from] my meditation and praying, things like that. As it went on longer, the worse it got."

Next stop, rock bottom. And she stayed there for about six months, by her recollection.

"I've never experienced anything like that — anxiety, depression, just not wanting to get up out of bed, not wanting to go to practice, not wanting to eat, lights off all the time — just stuff like that," she said.

Her mom flew to Los Angeles, where English was living at the time, to help out. As Monica told Schnell, "We loved her back to life." Her daughter had, in fact, done much the same for her a decade earlier, when Monica survived breast cancer.

English also sought professional help, from not only a psychologist but a sports psychologist and a spiritual counselor.

"I tripled up on myself," she said with a laugh. "I'm a big personality, so I figured to control that big personality, I needed more than one person."

She won the 100 at last year's Olympic Trials, and while she slipped to seventh in that event in Rio, she did earn gold in the relay.

She was back. Back on the side of the wall, she had been trying to reach for so very long.

And there she remains.

Penn, Villanova back for more championships at Penn Relays

Penn, Villanova back for more championships at Penn Relays

Like many people who come from nearby high schools, Penn senior Chris Hatler has been running at the Penn Relays since he was 15. But his initial experience at the famed meet did not go exactly as planned

“The first relay ever, I fell in the first 100 meters,” he said, “and made a fool of myself.”

Such can be the dangers of overwhelmed teenagers competing at a competition that also features college and professional stars — a three-day track & field carnival that is the oldest and largest of its kind in the country.

But last year, Hatler became one of those college stars himself, helping Penn to a dramatic win in the 4xmile — the host school’s first win in that event since 1950 and its first championship in any of the meet’s marquee distance relays since 1974.

Now, with the 123rd running of the Penn Relays set to kick off in full Thursday — the same day that the NFL draft begins across town — Hatler is ready to add another wheel before graduating, along with fellow senior Nick Tuck.

“Last year was exciting to win the 4xmile, but I kinda felt like for the seniors last year, it was their win, it was their wheel,” said Hatler, who also helped the Quakers set a school record in last year’s distance medley relay. “I know Nick and I kinda have a little grudge here. We want our own wheel for ourselves our senior year. So we’re gonna come out and see what we can do.”

Although the USA vs. the World races Saturday to highlight the meet, the college relays are often the most exciting with wild sprints to the finish line occurring in front of packed Franklin Field crowds. Last year, in between Team USA races, then-senior Thomas Awad chased down two other runners in the 4xmile to give Penn the victory on national TV, before being mobbed by Hatler, Tuck and Keaton Naff. 

Hatler couldn’t quite see the track from where he was standing but had a feeling that Awad — one of the most accomplished athletes in Penn’s track & field history — would come through on the final lap of his Penn Relays career.

“You never bet against Tom at the end of the race,” said Hatler, who earlier this year cracked the 4-minute-mile barrier. “We kinda knew it was gonna happen.”

Few other people expected it because the host school hasn’t always been competitive in the college championships at Penn Relays. But another local school always is — Villanova.

And the Wildcats are glad to get some more competition from their Big 5 rival.

“It was thrilling for me to see it happen,” Villanova men’s track coach Marcus O’Sullivan said. “This is really the home school. We’re happy to be sharing the stress of Penn [Relays] every year with the real home school.”

As for his own team, O’Sullivan said the Wildcats are dealing with injuries so it may not be in top form for the men’s distance medley relay (Friday, 5:30 p.m.), men’s 4xmile (Saturday, 1:15 p.m.) and the men’s 4x800 (Saturday, 4:40 p.m.), the first two of which will be broadcast on NBC Sports.

But he touted the talent of redshirt freshman Logan Wetzel, among others, and seems ready to throw some youngsters into the fire.

“I always say Penn is a defining arena for kids to grow up,” said O’Sullivan, who ran the Penn Relays as a student at Villanova. “You really start to learn. You prepare a year for Penn. 

“My junior year, we were annihilated, lost everything, and it one of the most humiliating moments of my life because so much is expected of you and you drop the ball. I spent a whole year just waiting for Penn, just training for Penn. The year I made the Olympic team, I kid you not, running at Penn, winning at Penn, was way more important for me at that time of my life. That’s how big it is.”

Villanova women’s coach Gina Procaccio also ran the Penn Relays in college and has similar feelings about the significance of the meet. And she’s ready to lead her powerhouse teams to more championships in the women’s distance medley relay (Thursday, 5:30 p.m.), the women’s 4x1500 (Friday, 1:20 p.m.) and the women’s 4x800 (Saturday, 4:10 p.m.).

Those relay teams will be led by Angel Piccirillo, a fifth-year senior who redshirted last year, and junior Siofra Cleirigh Buttner — two of the best distance runners in the NCAA. But it won’t be easy for them as this year’s field will be stacked with the likes of Oregon and Stanford.

But no one has done better at Penn Relays than the Villanova women, who have won 14 DMRs all time, including four straight from 2012-2015.

“I’m not one to shy away from the competition,” Procaccio said. “I like to earn those wins.”