AMHERST — Somewhere, John Calipari and John Chaney are taking a break from their eternal sparring session and hugging it out.
OK, the former coaches at the University of Massachusetts and Temple don’t really spend their days punching each other out. In fact, Chaney never laid a hand on Calipari on the night in 1994 when he famously showed up at a postgame press conference and had to be restrained from attacking the UMass leader. But that “I’ll kill you!” feistiness was what fueled the rivalry between the Minutemen and Owls when it was at its most heated.
Well, the heat has been turned off.
With Temple moving to the pared-down Big East after the season, the programs met for the final time as Atlantic 10 foes Saturday at the Mullins Center. And in a finish that was fitting for this tough-it-out rivalry, UMass had the ball with a chance to win in the final seconds but the Owls held strong for an 83-82 victory before an energized 7,438, the largest home crowd of the season.
“Well, I guess it’s probably what’s expected out of the last conference UMass-Temple game: a thriller that competes with some of the ones we’ve had over the years,” said coach Derek Kellogg, who first experienced the rivalry as a player for the Minutemen during the fiery early 1990s. “One-point game. We got the ball. Kind of a mad scramble. Didn’t have a chance to get a shot off.”
The coach summed up the finish well. UMass (16-8, 6-5) had pulled within a point on a Freddie Riley 3-pointer with 1:08 left, and after a Chaz Williams steal on the press, the Minutemen were poised to take the lead when Riley (17 points) fired up another from beyond the arc. But his shot hit the front of the rim, and there was a groan from a crowd that was ready to raise the roof. Temple (17-8, 6-5) couldn’t score at the other end, however, and UMass had the ball with 30 seconds to go.
Following a timeout, the Minutemen tried their usual game-on-the-line gambit: give the ball to Williams (16 points, career-high 13 assists). The Owls were prepared.
“You’re just thinking that Chaz is going to get the ball,” said Temple coach Fran Dunphy. “I mean, who wouldn’t give Chaz the ball?”
Temple didn’t wait for the Minutemen’s mini-maestro to try to break down the defense with one of his slashing drives. The Owls double-teamed the 5-foot-9-inch point guard out beyond the top of the key and knocked the ball away. Riley ended up with it, however, and as the seconds ticked off, the senior guard first looked for a shot, then spotted Williams cutting backdoor. Riley tried to get the ball to the team’s leading scorer on a cut to the hoop, but his pass through a crowd was deflected and resulted in the game-ending “mad scramble” that Kellogg lamented.
For the Minutemen, it was a bittersweet return to tightly contested basketball following Thursday’s collapse at Virginia Commonwealth, a game in which they saw a halftime lead turn into a blowout loss after a 21-1 run by the conference leaders to start the second half. But while UMass now has played a dozen games decided by 5 points or fewer, Temple saw its fifth straight game come down to a single point. The Owls also had a Thursday to forget, in fact: a home loss to Duquesne, which previously had not won in the conference.
“I guess that just goes to show how tough the conference is,” said Kellogg. “You just hope you’re fortunate enough that you come out on the right side of enough of those 1-pointers. And tonight, one play was the difference.”
One play at the end . . . and one player ensuring that Temple would be in the game right to the final buzzer. Conference scoring leader Khalif Wyatt (24 points), held in check before intermission, scored 17 second-half points, including five 3-pointers, to help the Owls erase a halftime deficit and play with a lead for much of the second half.
“He was firing balls that looked like they were going to hit the top of the Mullins that went in,” said Kellogg. “He makes tough shots. He’s one of those guys who, when he’s missing them, you’re like, ‘That’s a tough, sometimes maybe a bad shot.’ But when they go in, you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s a big-time shot.’ He made a lot of big-time plays.”