ATLANTIC CITY - Like a couple of heavyweight fighters who have been on stage in this building many times in its 83-year history, Temple and the University of Massachusetts slugged it out in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament at Boardwalk Hall Friday afternoon.
Decision: UMass via TKO. Simply put, the 77-71 victory was arguably one of the biggest of coach Derek Kellogg’s four-year tenure with the Minutemen. Kellogg never lost an A-10 tourney game as a player for UMass from 1992-95. And his team played with that kind of resiliency and toughness to take down the top-seeded Owls, who were a gaudy 10-2 at Boardwalk Hall and had won three of the previous five A-10 tourneys played in Atlantic City.
UMass (22-10) got 21 points from Jesse Morgan and 20 from Chaz Williams, both sophomore guards, to advance to Saturday’s semifinals against St. Bonaventure, which defeated Saint Joseph’s, 71-68.
Williams and Morgan shot a combined 13 of 25 from the field and Williams went 8 for 10 from the foul line to avenge a 90-88 overtime loss to Temple Feb. 29. The eighth-seeded Minutemen used a 15-0 run to turn a 36-31 deficit into 46-36 advantage less than five minutes into the second half.
But UMass trailed, 61-57, with 8:03 remaining when Temple’s Juan Fernandez (12 points) nailed a 3-pointer. Gritty UMass, however, outscored 21st-ranked Temple, 20-10, the rest of the way before a stunned crowd. It was Morgan’s 3-pointer with 4:50 left that gave UMass a lead it would never relinquish and a victory to cherish for a little less than 24 hours.
“I was happy to see our guys respond after we went on that 15-0 run and Temple came right back at us and took the lead away," Kellogg said “It was nice to see how our guys responded. It obviously was a big win for us and our program. Any time you can beat Temple on a neutral floor in the conference tournament, I think you’ve got to raise your head high and say that was a big win."
So, what was the difference in this UMass win?
“It’s hard to tell," Kellogg said. “Our guys just kept scratching and clawing and didn’t give in, and losing down there, I think we learned a lesson. You can’t give big-time games like that away. Nobody quit. I think this sort of solidified that we are in the same breath with Temple after today and the overtime loss."
The victory was especially sweet for Morgan, who hails from Philadelphia, where Temple is located.
“It was a good feeling because I was playing against a lot of guys I know and have played against," said Morgan, who also pulled down four rebounds. “It was a big win for the program and maybe we can get some respect now."
Williams was a workhorse, playing all 40 minutes, and making 3 of 4 free throws in the final 40 seconds to go with 10 assists.
“I didn’t make the mental mistakes I made in the last game against them," Williams said. “Like Coach said, it’s a big win for another hour and then we’ve got to get ready for Saturday."
Temple (24-7) got 15 points from Khalif Wyatt, who did not start because he was late for a team meeting. The Owls also got 14 points from Ramone Moore. Temple will likely receive an NCAA bid regardless, but that was no solace to coach Fran Dunphy.
“We get down, we don’t stay down,’’ he said. “Hopefully, we use this as an opportunity to play better basketball. I guess I have to work on my halftime speeches. That 15-0 run hurt us."
The victory snapped a six-game losing streak for UMass in Atlantic City. Like many who frequent here, the Minutemen’s luck was bound to change.
“We can’t get too big-headed about this," Williams said. “Now we’ve got to win tomorrow."