Temple star Khalif Wyatt shut down in UMass basketball quarterfinals victory

By Stephen Hewitt

NEW YORK Before Friday’s game in the Atlantic 10 Tournament quarterfinals at the Barclays Center, Temple star Khalif Wyatt was honored – with a trophy – for being named the Conference Player of the Year in 2012-13.

That’s about as long as the celebrations lasted for him.

Courtesy of Atlantic 10 Conference

The senior guard, who despite averaging a league-high 19.9 points per game and nearly matching it Friday with 19 points, was effectively shut down by the UMass defense as he missed shot after shot, never getting into the kind of groove he’s enjoyed for the better part of the season.

Scoring 19 points would be considered a good game by most standards, but it was a different statistic for Wyatt that glowed a little bit brighter in the Owls’ 79-74 loss: A putrid 4-for-19 (21 percent) from the floor, including going 2-for-11 from 3-point range with four turnovers mixed in as well.

Temple coach Fran Dunphy said he thought his star put a little too much pressure on himself to perform.

“He’s a tremendous player, and he did force a few things, but at some point you’re saying to yourself, at some point he’s going to get us out of it,” Dunphy said. “He probably did try to do a little bit too much.”

The Minutemen made it hard on Wyatt by not just putting one defender on him, but by putting together a complete group effort to make him take tough shots and force the ball out of his hands to his less-skilled teammates.

UMass guards Freddie Riley and Chaz Williams were given the majority of the responsibility to contain Wyatt, but others chipped in their help too, including Raphiael Putney and Maxie Esho, among others who gave cameo appearances in trying to stop one of the nation’s best scorers.

“I think they did a pretty job defending me,” Wyatt said. “I still think I had some good looks, just couldn’t put it in. They’re a pretty good defensive team. They’re long, they’re athletic, they’re strong and they play hard. You just give them a lot of credit for playing pretty solid defense.”

Riley, who has made a transformation over the course of his career to put more of a priority on his defense, has been tasked time after time this season to defend the opponent’s best scorer. In the two teams’ Feb. 16 meeting – an 83-82 Temple win at the Mullins Center – Riley and Co. did a good job in containing Wyatt in the first half, but the senior imposed his will in the second half with six 3-pointers en route to the win.

On Friday, though, that previous first half effort was duplicated in the second half. Wyatt went just 2-for-11 over the final 20 minutes and went 1-for-7 from behind the arc. For the game, nine of his team-high 19 points came on free throws, a testament to his ability to take defenses off the dribble and draw fouls, but he could never quite get in his rhythm – one that has seen him score 30 or more points five times this season – as the UMass defense swarmed on him and consistently altered his shots.

Riley wasn’t quite ready to deem the defensive performance a finishing touch of a complete transformation, but one he’ll try to replicate it as the Minutemen continue through the postseason.

“I think the finishing touch would be ending the season on a win,” he said. “I’m just going to continue to try to play defense the best I can and try to help my team be in a position to win.”

After UMass’ victory over George Washington on Thursday night in the first round, Williams was asked what his keys were for beating Temple. The short answer from Williams was “guard Khalif Wyatt,” something far easier said than done.

But on Friday night, it was done, thanks in large part to his and Riley’s efforts, but he wasn’t taking any of the credit away from Riley. Williams knows just how important his defensive prowess is for a team that lost its best perimeter defender in Jesse Morgan to injury earlier this season.

“Fred is a great defender,” Williams said. “He’s a tough cookie, so he was just out there playing as hard as he can, and he did a great job. For Wyatt to go 4-for-19, I told Fred he did a great job on him.”

Stephen Hewitt can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @steve_hewitt.