The players aren't sure how they did it. Their coach isn't sure either. The 4,161 fans at the Liacouras Center also more than likely lack an explanation.
Call it luck, determination or even divine intervention, but whatever it was the Temple Owls are surely grateful. Their 87-85 overtime win against the Buffalo Bulls on Wednesday was as ugly as it was practically inexplicable.
And while most will be understandably perplexed as to how the Owls pulled out a game in which they were forced to play a five-guard set for extended minutes, redshirt freshman Anthony Lee — whose last-second putback won the game for Temple — knows exactly where to give the credit.
"I think I'm really blessed," Lee said. "You know, I believe in God. So, at the end of the game, I was telling God, 'I know I've been playing bad this whole game, missing easy shots, not rotating, not doing the things I'm capable of doing.' And I wanted to make it up to my teammates, and to myself. And I had a feeling, really, that I was going to get a chance to do something, to get a tip or something, and it just … came through."
Help from up high seems as good as any explanation for Lee and the Owls, who struggled all night from the floor — shooting just 36.4 percent — but made every shot they needed to down the stretch. Indeed, that game-clinching putback was the only made field goal for the 6-9 forward during his 25 minutes played.
Khalif Wyatt, Ramone Moore and Juan Fernandez all suffered similar struggles, shooting a combined 20 for 56. Still, in spite of those totals, all three would make key contributions from long range to keep the Owls in the game. The trio combined for 10 threes.
"I know we made some big shots," Temple head coach Fran Dunphy said.
"Khalif made a couple big shots. Juan made a big shot. But that's what
it takes: guys who have confidence in themselves to step up and make it
Temple regrouped from an early 12-3 deficit to ahead 35-34 at halftime, but fell behind 28 seconds into the second half and never regained the lead in regulation. Their largest deficit in the second half was six — on three separate occassions — with 4:23, 3:51 and 1:22 to go.
But with seconds left in OT and the game tied at 85, Wyatt missed a three, and Aaron Brown tipped the rebound to Lee, who hit a floater in the lane for the game-winner.
"I just saw the shot go up," Lee said, "and [Brown] tipped the ball back. I reached up and grabbed it and floated the ball up 'cause I saw time was expiring."
Temple (8-3) has now won six of its last seven and 25 straight at home, the longest streak in school history and fifth longest current streak in the nation (tied with Purdue). They finished the MAC portion of their out-of-conference schedule 3-1.
When asked how it felt to play as bad as both he and teammates admitted to playing and still come out on top, Fernandez was at something of a loss to explain it himself.
"I mean, when you analyze it after the game, it says something," he said.
Just what that something is, even his coach can't quite identify.
"There was just a belief, I think, that these guys all had at the end," Dunphy said, "and I'm hoping that will be a signature of this team that they will find a way. We certainly didn't do a good job on the defensive end … but if you're going to tell me we won this game in a hard-fought fashion, and found a way to do it, I'll be pleased."
The errors on defense to which the coach is referring were no doubt exacerbated by the absence of 6-6 forward Scootie Randall and 6-10 center Michael Eric. Buffalo scored 50 of its 85 points in the paint, as 6-7 junior forward Javon McCrea led all scorers with 28 points on 12-for-16 shooting.
Try as he did, the 6-9, 205-pound Lee proved unable to fill the void left by injured veteran teammates. Regardless, Dunphy seemed grateful for and encouraged by the performance.
"McCrea is a tough guy to guard down there," Dunphy said. "So you're asking a redshirt freshman who is, again, tremendously undersized in terms of width and girth [to do that]. He tried, but he's got a whole lot of work to do."
"But he's what we got, and I don't want to have anybody else. He's a good kid — Anthony. And I was thrilled for him to have that last shot go down."
The fact that Lee even made it to the end of overtime is pretty impressive considering both he and power forward Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson had both registered four fouls with over nine minutes left to play.
At that point, Temple was forced into multiple occasions in which it had play five guards at once. In spite of their disadvantage in height, the Owls would still manage to outrebound the larger Bulls, 45-44, a total no doubt aided by their 19 offensive boards. Those putback opportunities coupled with 21 forced turnovers resulted in 50 points for a Temple team that struggled to knock down jump shots.
If they're going to be successful moving forward, the Owls will need that sort of team effort when it comes to rebounding and forcing turnovers, as additional help doesn't appear to be coming soon. Eric is expected remain out for the next few weeks and Randall is seriously considering exercising his option to a medical redshirt; the latter could make an announcement regarding his status as early as Thursday.
"We're undersized and we're 'under-girthed,'" Dunphy said. "But that's the way it is. We're going to have to battle like crazy and find a way to win games. These guys came up with some big, big shots at the end, and I'm proud of their effort today. Unfortunately, I think we're going to have a lot of these down-to-the-wire games, and we're just going to have to find a way to survive."