First-round losers in four of their last five NCAA tournament appearances, the Temple Owls found a way to advance Friday thanks to a little thumb drive.
After taking himself out of the game for a couple of minutes when he suffered a thumb injury early in the second half, senior guard Khalif Wyatt stayed in when he re-aggravated it with the game on the line.
And while clutching the taped digit and grimacing in obvious pain, Wyatt went 6 of 6 from the free-throw line in the final 32 seconds to squelch No. 8 North Carolina State’s comeback bid, lifting the ninth-seeded Owls to a 76-72 upset in an East Region second-round game at UD Arena.
“It was sore. When I got fouled, they were kind of smacking at it a little bit,” said Wyatt, who went 12 of 14 from the line and finished with a game-high 31 points. “My teammates did a good job of getting me the ball, and they trusted me to make the shots at the end.”
Graduate student Jake O’Brien added 18 points and senior Rahir Hollis-Jefferson tossed in 12 for Temple (24-9), which advanced to face No. 1 seed Indiana on Sunday.
Eager to put their string of early exits behind them, the Owls raced out early and were up by 16 at the break. The lead grew to 18 in the second half before North Carolina State (24-11) charged back to get within 63-60 on a Scott Wood 3-pointer with 3:09 remaining.
“I really thought we were going to play well, play early,” Wolfpack coach Mike Gottfried. “There was great energy in our locker room, and then we just started slow. We really did fight hard, fought back really, really well. But boy, the start was not good.”
Junior guard Lorenzo Brown scored 22 points to lead four N.C. State players in double figures. Junior forward C.J. Leslie had 20, senior forward Richard Howell added 14, along with a game-high 15 rebounds, and Wood finished with 10 as the Wolfpack shot 70.4 percent from the floor in the second half.
But it wasn’t enough to overcome the will — and accuracy — of the aching Wyatt, who was 8 of 8 from the line after N.C. State got within three.
“He’s as tough a competitor as I’ve ever had an opportunity to coach,” Temple’s Fran Dunphy said. “He’s certainly the guy you want on the foul line. He just wants the moment.”