The Battle With Battle
TUCSON, Ariz. -- On Wednesday night in a ballroom at the Westward Look Resort, Temple players were treated to a montage of Talor Battle clips before dinner. Assistant coach Shawn Trice, who was in charge of the Penn State scouting report, told them to pay particular attention to a series of four possessions in the Nittany Lions' Big Ten tournament win over Michigan State. "This sequence right here," Trice said, "was the game."
The sequence was all Battle: He hit four threes in succession that turned a 30-29 game into a 42-33 game and helped Penn State pull away. He came off baseline screens and cross-screens and down-screens and curls, and on one occasion, his defender just got caught napping and allowed an extra few feet of space. "The one guy we can't leave is Battle," Trice said. "We have to stay on his hip, and make sure he doesn't have an impact on the game like this."
In the locker room on Thursday, 25 minutes before tipoff, head coach Fran Dunphy talked once more about how they would defend Battle, who came in averaging 20.1 points per game. They'd be denying him the ball when it was possible, switching on cross-screens, and getting help from big men like Lavoy Allen when Battle came off of curls. Junior guard Ramone Moore's name was next to Battle's on the section of the whiteboard that listed defensive assignments, but it was going to have to be a total team effort. The last thing Dunphy said to the Owls was, "Play with poise and confidence."
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Up until the final 20 seconds, they had remained relatively poised in guarding Battle. It wasn't pretty for a stretch early on, and Moore admitted that "we kind of got confused" in allowing Battle to score 13 first-half points on 3-of-5 long-range shooting. But Temple took a 35-33 lead into the half, and junior guard Juan Fernandez had actually outscored Battle 17-13 at that point.
The Owls stepped up their switching efforts down the stretch, with everyone from Moore to Khalif Wyatt to Aaron Brown to T.J. Dileo to Allen to Rahlir Jefferson taking turns on Battle. But it was Wyatt, their sophomore sixth man, who emerged as the most valuable defender and was the primary reason Battle didn't score for the first 14-plus minutes of the second half. "When Khalif wants to play defense," DiLeo said, "he's a really good defender."* A key two-possession swing featuring a fully engaged Wyatt -- where he blocked a Battle three and then hit a trey of his own at the other end -- gave Temple a 45-43 lead with 12:00 left.
(* Wyatt had apparently been gearing up for the Battle battle: The Parliament, a blog written by a crew of Owls walk-ons, had a Wednesday post that included the line, "We are all very focused for this game, to the extent Khalif has even memorized Battle's social security number, his favorite Teletubby, and what kind of deodorant he wears.")
The Owls carried a 64-61 lead into the game's final 20 seconds, and it wasn't until Wyatt left Battle that he had a chance to release a classic NCAA tournament dagger. Wyatt switched a left-wing ball screen and followed a slipping David Jackson, and it was Jefferson's responsibility to jump out on Battle. He didn't leap immediately to the ball, and as Dunphy described it: "Then Talor Battle made a 41-footer that as soon as it left his hands, you knew it was going in." It was a stunning, clutch three that tied the game at 64-64 with 14.2 seconds left. Fifth-year Temple assistant Dave Duke called it "the biggest, toughest shot I've ever seen made against us."
It was up to Temple to answer Battle. A timeout was called with 11 seconds left, and by this point in the game, anything in the scouting report was irrelevant. "Really," Dunphy said, "you're leaving it up to the kids." And so, in the timeout huddle, when Wyatt was poised and confident enough to suggest a play -- "He's got sage advice for me often, and he said, 'I think we need to just put it in Juan's hands,'" Dunphy said -- the coach agreed, calling for a simple high ball screen from Allen to free up Fernandez. If he got open, he'd shoot it, and if he was covered, he'd kick out to Moore, who'd already scored 17 second-half points. The play had no name, Jefferson said, other than "Juan, score the ball."
Fernandez drove right off the screen and picked up his dribble when he was isolated with Penn State point guard Tim Frazier just outside of the lane. Frazier had him smothered, and Moore was locked up on the wing. But the Owls still had faith; as DiLeo said, "Juan makes shots like that all the time in practice, when he has no options left." Seemingly out of options, Fernandez created one by shot-faking and then stepping around Frazier to the left. A leaning, low-arcing jumper went through the net with .4 seconds remaining -- not nearly enough time for a Battle rebuttal. Fernandez had equaled Battle's 23 points, and Battle sat on the floor, his head resting on his knees in a pose of defeat, as the Owls rejoiced.
When Dunphy returned to the locker room after a courtside TV interview, his players gave him a standing ovation. The victory had marked the end of his 11-game losing streak in the NCAA tournament -- and perhaps just as importantly, it would mark the end of reporters' questions about that streak. He told the Owls, "Now that we got this one, why not keep going?" They have San Diego State to deal with on Saturday -- no easy task. But at least they're done with Talor Battle.