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 top-seeded Indiana on 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.
“They trusted me to make the two shots at the end,” Wyatt said. “Some of the N.C. State guys were talking a little bit, but you’ve just got to block it out.”
Wyatt broke Temple’s single-season free-throw record and finished with the most points by an Owl in the NCAA tournament since 1991.
“We’ve played against really good guards this year,” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. “Khalif Wyatt is as good or better than all of them.”
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 their most famous finish. Richard Howell had 14 points and 15 rebounds for N.C. State, which couldn’t fully take advantage of its advantage inside.
The Wolfpack are commemorating the 30-year anniversary of their national title under coach Jim Valvano. That’s when 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 this time.
“He’s really crafty,” N.C. State’s Scott Brown said. “He was able to draw the foul and get to the line. Anytime you shoot 14 free throws in a game, that’s going to help you. He’s a good player, and that’s what makes them go.”
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, 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, who averages 19.8 points. Wyatt had three driving baskets — two of them off steals — and O’Brien hit a 3 for a 33-18 lead with 6 minutes, 38 seconds left in the half.
O’Brien hit yet another 3 with 18 seconds left for a 38-22 lead at halftime. 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 straight 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 from outside — only 1-of-7 behind the arc — but compensated by driving inside for baskets over taller defenders.
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.
The Owls managed to maintain their cushion until the closing minutes. 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.