Injured Khalif Wyatt scores 31, leads Temple over NC State 76-72 in NCAA tournament

No one-and-done for Temple on this day. Their best player pulled it off with six clinching free throws that were oh-so-painful but still perfect.

Khalif Wyatt scored 31 points, finishing the game with an injured left thumb that had him grimacing before his decisive free throws, and Temple broke with its trend of opening game losses in the NCAA tournament on Friday, beating North Carolina State 76-72 in the second round of the East Regional.

The ninth-seeded Owls (24-9) will face winner of the Indiana-LIU Brooklyn game on Sunday, which represents a breakthrough for Temple right there.

The Owls are trying to shed its 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 Elite Eight.

Temple opened a 17-point lead before Wyatt — the Atlantic 10's player of the year and top scorer — hurt his left thumb and left the game briefly, returning with black tape on the non-shooting hand. It clearly bothered him every time he tried to grip the ball.

Every shot was an adventure, but he made enough — including 6 of 6 from the line in the final 32 seconds — to keep Temple around for more than one game. He hit his last two with 2.2 seconds to go.

How bad was the thumb?

"It's sore," he said, deciding that didn't fully describe the pain. "It's sore. It's sore."

No. 8 NC State (24-11) trailed most of the game, but cut it to 74-72 on Lorenzo Brown's jumper with 2 seconds left. Wyatt was fouled on the inbounds play and finished it off.

The Wolfpack went to the round of 16 last season and yearned for a deep tournament run in a year dedicated to its most famous finish. Richard Howell had 14 points and 15 rebounds for NC State, which couldn't fully take advantage of its advantage up-front.

The Wolfpack is commemorating the 30-year anniversary of its national title under coach Jim Valvano, the one with the wild ending. Lorenzo Charles grabbed Dereck Whittenburg's off-target shot and slammed it home at the buzzer for a 54-52 win over Houston, sending Valvano on his joyous ramble around the court.

Wyatt cut off any hopes of a last-second win for NC State this time.

Both sides knew it could come down to an inside job.

The Owls were overshadowed on the front line, where N.C. State had the 6-foot-8 Howell, the ACC's leading rebounder. Temple's top inside threat — leading rebounder Anthony Lee — was limited in practice this week after getting tested for a concussion following the Atlantic 10 tournament.

Lee was replaced in the starting lineup Friday by 6-foot-9 Jake O'Brien, making his seventh start. O'Brien, who likes to shoot the 3, played the leading role in Temple's fast start. He finished with 18 points.

Still, the onus was on the 6-foot-4 Wyatt, the A-10's leading scorer at 19.8 points per game. Wyatt had three driving baskets — two of them off steals — and O'Brien hit a 3 for a 33-18 lead with 6:38 left in the half.

Lee got into the game briefly and scored a basket, but O'Brien was the Owls' main guy up-front. He hit yet another 3 with 18 seconds left for a 38-22 lead at halftime, giving him a game-high 13 points. C.J. Leslie and the rest of the Wolfpack walked off the court stunned, the shock showing in their listless stride and blank faces.

Wyatt has a knack for wriggling free in the lane and drawing fouls, but his long-range shot has been off. He missed 12 straights shots during a loss to Massachusetts during the A-10 tournament, and was only 4 of 23 behind the arc in his last three games.

Wyatt still struggled with his outside shot — only 1 of 7 behind the arc — but compensated by driving inside for baskets over taller defenders. He went 12 of 14 from the foul line.

After Wyatt hurt his hand in the second half, N.C. State started its best spurt of the game, getting the ball inside four times for baskets — two each by Howell and Brown — that cut it to 47-39 with 13:08 to go.

Wyatt grabbed his left thumb occasionally and was off on his shot, but the Owls managed to keep their distance until the closing minutes. Scott Wood, the ACC's top 3-point shooter, missed his first four shots, but hit back-to-back 3s that cut it to 63-60 with 3:08 left.

He missed another 3 with 1:11 to go, and Wyatt finished it off with those free throws.


Follow Joe Kay on Twitter: