Will Cummings, Temple make statement in NIT win over Bucknell

Will Cummings isn’t ready to end his Temple basketball career — not yet.

“It’s a lot of motivation knowing my days are numbered with my teammates in practice and in games,” Cummings said. “Any given game, I could be done. I’m just trying to go out here and compete. Give everything I got and try to come out with wins and keep playing.”

With that mentality — knowing Wednesday night very well could have been his last in cherry and white — the senior point guard sent a message: Bring on George Washington.

Cummings scored a season-high 30 points, one shy of his career high and the most by any Owl this season, to lead the No. 1-seed Owls past the No. 8-seed Bucknell Bison, 73-67, in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament at the Liacouras Center.

“He made a statement that he’s a really good basketball player tonight and that’s all we’re concerned about,” Temple head coach Fran Dunphy said.

Something else also fueled Cummings’ performance Wednesday. Four days ago, the Owls learned they were the first team left out of the NCAA Tournament. That wasn’t easy to take.

“We don’t really want to go out on a sour note,” he said. “It would be bad if we didn’t make the NCAA Tournament and come out here and lose. That’s not really how we want to go out. That’s not how I really want to go out as a senior. I really wanted to win today, win the tournament.”

For a team expected to make the field of 68, the NIT might seem like a consolation prize. It could have been easy for Temple to suffer from an emotional hangover. But as Bucknell head coach Dave Paulsen said after the loss, the Owls didn’t pack it in. They played hard.

How long did it take Cummings to get over the disappointment of missing the Big Dance?

“Probably Monday,” he said. “I had to refocus just to make sure these guys are ready, too. I can’t be thinking about the NCAA Tournament still and expect them to be thinking about Bucknell.”

About Bucknell, a team that has now lost its last 11 games against Temple — it was the 35th meeting between the two schools. The Bison scored the game’s first five points, forcing Dunphy to call a timeout, as the coach said, to “implore their efforts a little bit more.”

“Sometimes you can get punched right in the forehead,” he said, “and not realize this is a really good basketball team we’re playing.”

The timeout worked, as Temple came out of it going on a 14-0 run that began with Cummings putting back a missed Quenton DeCosey three-pointer and drawing a foul. But the Bison battled with the Owls all first half, hitting some timely threes and going into the intermission tied, 35-35.

“They’re a resilient team, they just kept fighting,” Cummings said. “They had a look in their eye like they wanted to win. We just had to lock in. We couldn’t put them away like we wanted to, so we just tried to focus and do everything down the stretch to come out with a win.”

In the second half, Bucknell and Temple traded leads. After the lead changed five times in the first half, it changed a few more times in the second. All said and done, there were 11 total.

With 11:10 left in the second half, the Owls were trailing, 52-51, when Cummings took over the game. He scored nine of the Owls’ next 11 points, and when the stretch ended, Temple had a seven-point lead, 62-55. While Bucknell got within two late, Temple never relinquished the lead.

“Will was outstanding,” Dunphy said. “He shot the ball really well from the perimeter. He was ready to go. I felt bad for him having those two fouls in the first half so quickly, but when we put him back in he let us know he was ready to go and he wasn’t going to get the third.

“It was an unbelievable performance. He was all over the place. There was one, maybe two times he tried to do a little bit too much but very happy for him. He made a great statement tonight.”

Cummings’ 30 points fell one point shy of his career-high 31, but he proved again he’s the most important player on Dunphy’s roster. Next year, it’ll be a challenge to replace him. Josh Brown (11 points, 23 minutes) will take over as the primary ballhandler. It’ll be a different offense.

But this season isn’t over yet, even if everyone else’s eyes will be on the NCAA Tournament. Cummings still has at least one more game to play — Sunday, 11 a.m. against No. 5 George Washington at the Liacouras Center — and one more point to make, though that won’t come just yet.

“Not yet,” Cummings said. “We’re still playing basketball. When we get to Madison Square Garden, then we’ll decide if we proved a point.”

*Story originally published on NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com on March 19, 2015.