So, it looks like the Atlantic 10 Conference will get two teams into the NCAA Tournament this year after all. GW lost 68-53 to Temple in the A-10 quarterfinals today. I have seen GW lose many games to Temple, and so many of those losses looked exactly like this one today. There was the early GW lead, built with fast break baskets and Temple turnovers; GW led 23-18 on a three-pointer by Carl Elliott with eight minutes to play in the first half. This high point was followed by 28 minutes of futility. The Colonials' next three possessions ended in turnovers as Temple took a 24-23 lead. Finally, Omar Williams drew a foul as he spun to the basket and hung in the air, but he missed both free throws.
Nothing could go right for the Colonials today. Temple led 25-23 with 4:02 left when Williams drew a charge, the third foul on Temple's starting center, Wayne Marshall. Marshall would not return to the court until late in the second half, but he would haunt GW when he did. Even without the 6-11, 285-pound Marshall clogging the lane, GW could not find the hoop. Instead they gave up four turnovers and missed four shots, not scoring the last eight minutes of the first half.
At this point, I had a flashback to 1994. Yinka Dare was a sophomore, and the Colonials had been in the Top 25 early in the season before inconsistent play had landed them squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble going into the conference tournament. GW had advanced to the Sweet 16 the year before, so expectations were high, and the prospect of not even making the Big Dance was disheartening. After a quarterfinal win over Rhode Island, GW met Temple in the semis. I was the director of marketing, and I sat next to my boss, the assistant athletic director. Our nervous energy turned to excitement as GW built a 24-16 halftime lead over an Owl team that featured Eddie Jones, Aaron McKie and Rick Brunson, all of whom would later play in the NBA. At halftime, I bumped into an A-10 administrator. "You guys are definitely in the tournament now," he said.
GW did not score for the first 15 minutes in the second half. Temple's matchup zone looked like it was being played by six guys. Dare, who could dominate college games, barely saw the ball as Temple drew even and pulled away (two weeks later, Dare left school to turn pro). My boss looked like he was going to be physically ill as he got up from his seat when GW finally scored. Final score, Temple 54, GW 34. Needless to say, the A-10 staffer was not quite so confident after the game as he had been at halftime.
This is the genius of Temple's famous matchup zone. If you have success, it serves only to build up a false sense of confidence. You get a few fastbreaks, make a few threes, maybe even get a lead and think to yourself, "We can beat these guys." So you start taking some chances, ignoring your coaches' orders to run the offense.
Meanwhile, you have been working your butt off on defense while Temple sticks to its game plan, patiently using up time until they get the ball to whatever future NBA player happens to be on the court for them. And they always seem to get it to him right where he wants it. So you redouble your efforts and begin to press, taking chances that Temple makes you pay for every time. The open three pointers aren't open anymore, so you move back until you are beyond NBA range. A passing lane opens up and closes just as you release the ball. And when you finally find a seam and drive the lane, you find yourself hanging in midair, waiting for contact that never comes, and your shot bounces miserably off the iron.
Beating Temple in a close game takes every ounce of physical, mental and emotional strength that you can muster because the Owls are big, athletic, disciplined, and they fear no one except their coach, John Chaney.
In the second half today, GW tried to fight back into the game, attacking the basket and continuing to press the Owls on defense. The Colonials cut the lead to six on two Carl Elliott free throws early in the period, but Temple converted a rally-killing four-point play on the next possessions and GW never got closer than seven points again.
As the half wore on, I struggled to believe that the Colonials had a chance in this one. Yes, they had come back from down 10 at the half against Xavier, and yes, there was the Charlotte miracle last weekend, but this was different. This was Temple. GW almost never wins close games against Temple. The only close win I remember was the 1993 win that broke Temple's 21-game win streak over GW. But I remember Mark Karver missing a potential game-tying three-point attempt at the buzzer in 1990, I remember the two-point overtime loss at Smith Center in 1992, and, of course, I remember Pat Ngongba's infamous phantom foul on Lynn Greer in the 2001 A-10 tourney.
Maybe - I hope anyway - maybe Temple doesn't get in the players' heads the way that I described above, but I don't think I am the only GW fan who has a special, uncomfortable place in my subconscious for the Owls. Back in 1993, GW took the lead in the second half of the regional semifinal game against Michigan. One fellow fan pointed out to me that if GW had won that game, they would have had a good shot at getting to the Final Four because the opponent would have been Temple, and "We've already beaten them this year." And it was true. For the first time in 22 games, GW had beaten Temple. By three points. But I still think he was overstating the case.