They were a 19.5-point favorite, and they trailed by as much as nine in the second half.
Yet again, the Temple Owls struggled with a team they should have run out of the gym. Instead, they played just well enough in the second half to rally past the Penn Quakers, 76-69, Wednesday night at the Liacouras Center (see Instant Replay).
In its last three games -- games it was expected to win handily -- Temple (13-5) nearly lost to George Washington, actually lost to St. Bonaventure and was about to lose to a Penn team that's now just 3-15 overall.
Had it not been for Khalif Wyatt, that's exactly what would have happened.
Wyatt scored 21 of his game-high 26 points in the second half. In a seven-minute, 11-second stretch -- from 16:18 to 9:07 -- he accounted for 16 of the Owls' 18 points. His run -- during which he outscored Penn by himself, 16-9 -- vaulted Temple from down nine, 45-36, into a 54-54 tie.
"He had six turnovers, which is very uncharacteristic of him. He had a couple times where he tried to force the issue a little bit. But you don't want anybody else with the ball," Temple coach Fran Dunphy said. "He's so good at what he does."
And that's true. Wyatt is so good at what he does that while his exploits remain impressive, they're not altogether unexpected.
T.J. DiLeo hitting two crucial threes, on the other hand, that's unexpected.
DiLeo -- a defensive, responsible-with-the-ball role player who's averaged 2.2 points per game in his four year career -- hit back-to-back threes immediately following Wyatt's run to secure Temple's two most important baskets of the game. Those two makes with 8:52 and 7:16 remaining cut Wyatt a break, kept Penn from pulling away, tied the game at 61 and galvanized Temple into a 15-8 run the rest of the way.
"T.J. shies away from shots sometimes, but we encourage him," Wyatt said. "He can shoot the ball. So we encourage him to shoot it when he's open … He knocked some big shots down for us. And I think for us to be the best we can be, I think T.J. is gonna have to make some shots for us."
"It was critical. I thought T.J. was great," Dunphy said. "You need to shoot shots. You need to have confidence in yourself … That's the way college basketball is. You need everybody out there. I thought T.J. was instrumental in pulling us ahead in that second half."
Pulling them ahead after they trailed a Penn team that, frankly, had outplayed them to that point. Temple shot (perhaps uncharacteristically) well from the floor, going 25 for 49 (51 percent), but had trouble keeping Penn from converting easy baskets in the first half. Temple would score on a methodical possession, and Penn would beat them down the floor to convert multiple uncontested lay-ins or find an open man for a jumper.
Prior to DiLeo's second three, which proved to be the turning point, Penn had shot 52 percent from the field. After DiLeo's three, the Quakers finished the game just 1-for-9 shooting.
Penn's Miles Cartright and Darien Nelson-Henry finished with 21 points and 17 points, respectively. Cartwright, Nelson-Henry and Patrick Lucas-Perry (15 points) combined to shoot 17-for-29 from the field. The Quakers assisted on 16 of their 24 baskets and went 15 of 16 from the free-throw line. Some cold three-point shooting aside (6-for-18, 33 percent), it was, unquestionably, Penn's best performance of the year. And it meant little, if anything, to head coach Jerome Allen.
"If you say that to me (that Penn fought hard), that really doesn't mean anything to me," Allen said. "I coach to win. At the end of the day, we lost the game as a function of what we did not do. That has to be our mentality. We can't allow the periphery to set the standard for us."
That's a message that's maybe gotten into the Owls' heads a bit, too. That they haven't struggled because other teams are underrated or because they're not getting foul calls. They're struggling as a result of what they do not do -- play defense.
Had it not locked down in the final six minutes, and had Penn not missed a few good looks, Temple might have lost two in a row on its own floor to two teams with a combined 11-23 record.
"When we play defense, we can play with any team in the country," Wyatt said.
This coming Saturday, they won't face just any team. The Owls will take on the No. 9 in the country when they travel to Hinkle Fieldhouse for a meeting with Butler, who lost its first A-10 game of the season to La Salle Wednesday night.
Whether Butler's leading scorer, Rotnei Clarke, is back on the floor or not, Temple will need to snap out of its funk and play more like it did against Syracuse and Kansas than it did against George Washington, St. Bonaventure and Penn.
"I think we'll definitely come together," Temple sophomore center Anthony Lee said. He finished with 16 points and nine rebounds Wednesday, but was simultaneously praised and criticized by Dunphy for being "a microcosm" of Temple's inconsistency. That's why his quotes were somewhat revealing.
"I don't have no doubt in our team," Lee continued. "When we play big teams -- [Butler] is in the A-10, but they're really well-known and a top team in the country -- when we play teams like that, it should get you juiced up, it should get you fired up. The way we played tonight wasn't our best, but those games are games where we have to show our best.
"Coach has been very intense the last few days, but we knew we didn't play our best. We've been struggling a little bit, winning some games and losing some games. We just have to get back on track with being consistent.
"We just gotta listen to coach, really pay attention to the little things. And if we do that, we won't be trying to pull out games by the skin of our teeth."