DAYTON, Ohio — Khalif Wyatt grabbed his left thumb — the one alarmingly wrapped in black support tape — pulled it toward his stomach and grimaced.
His non-shooting hand dangled uselessly as he set up behind the free-throw line. He carefully placed it on the bottom of the ball, cautiously dribbled a couple times, then put both hands on it and let it fly.
Painful, but perfect.
Then, he did it five more times.
Wyatt scored 31 points and made six decisive free throws in the final 32 seconds Friday, leading Temple to a 76-72 victory over North Carolina State in the second round of the East Regional.
No one-and-done for Temple this time. The Owls’ best player wouldn’t have it.
“He’s as tough a competitor as I’ve had an opportunity to coach,” Temple’s Fran Dunphy said. “He wants the moment.”
The ninth-seeded Owls (24-9) will face winner of the Indiana-LIU Brooklyn game Sunday, which represents a breakthrough for Temple all by itself.
The Owls are trying to shed their reputation as an easy-out team. They’d made the tournament each of the last five years, losing their opening game all but once. They haven’t been to the round of 16 since 2001, when they reached the regional final.
They were having one of their best games of the season, holding a 17-point lead, before Wyatt got hurt, giving them a huge fright. The Atlantic 10’s player of the year and top scorer got his thumb caught in a defender’s jersey and had it twisted backward.
He took himself out of the game — a sign something was badly wrong — got it taped and returned to finish the win off.
How bad was it?
“It’s sore,” he said, then realized that didn’t fully capture the depth of the discomfort.
“It’s sore,” he added. “It’s sore.”
Every shot was an adventure, but he made enough to keep Temple around for more than one game. He hit his last two free throws with 2.2 seconds to go, finishing 12 of 14 from the line overall.