Last season, Temple used a 35-point explosion from then-senior guard Dionte Christmas to take down No. 8 Tennessee.
Today, sophomore guard Juan Fernandez scored a career-high 33 points, and the Owls defeated the No. 3-ranked and previously undefeated Villanova Wildcats, 75-65.
Temple (8-2 overall, 1-0 Big 5) had not beaten a Top 5 opponent since Feb. 20, 2000, when the Owls won, 77-69, against No. 1 Cincinnati.
“Well, I didn’t start the game well,” Fernandez said. “I shot an air-ball. I was thinking about the game this whole week. I knew it was important for us. We haven’t beaten Villanova in a long time [since 2004]. I think we needed this win. We needed to prove ourselves. I was feeling good. Today was my turn, but maybe next time it’ll be Lavoy [Allen’s] or [Ryan] Brooks’.”
It didn’t look like an upset early, though.
The Owls scored first, but the Wildcats (9-1 overall, 3-1 Big 5) rode two separate runs of 7-0 and 17-4 to increase their lead to as much as 14 points on two occasions in the first half.
At that point, coach Fran Dunphy took a gamble. Fernandez had picked up his second foul halfway through the first half. With 4 minutes, 28 seconds remaining, Dunphy put Fernandez back into the game.
“I’d like to sit here and say what a genius move it was, but we were in trouble,” Dunphy said. “We needed one of our best scorers in the game because we were not scoring. We were not doing what we needed to do. Juan saved us again at the end of the first half.”
Fernandez promptly scored five of the Owls’ next 12 points, and Temple closed the gap to a six-point deficit, 37-31, at halftime.
“Fortunately, we were down six points,” senior guard Ryan Brooks said. “We gave them a lot of opportunities with a lot of questionable shots we took on the offensive end, which led to their transition. Coach harped on coming out the first five minutes, and that it was going to be crucial. We happened to go on that 11-0 run, which sparked us and gave us the confidence for the rest of the half.”
During that 11-0 run to open up the second half, Fernandez scored five more points (he had 17 at halftime), and junior Craig Williams knocked down two 3-pointers to give Temple its first lead of the game since the Owls led, 2-0 and 2-1, at the start of the game. The Owls would not relinquish it this time.
“Certainly, the start of the second half was important, but I would say only a little bit less important than the end of the first half,” Dunphy said. “We were in big trouble. We could have really been hurting at halftime, but we cut it to six [points]. Craig Williams makes a couple 3s, Juan makes a 3 to give us some cushion because you knew they were going to make a run. Really, the end of the first half was critical for us.”
Twice, at 42-41 and 45-44, Villanova cut the Owls’ lead to one point. Both times, the Owls responded, first on a 3-pointer from Fernandez, the other time on a jumper from junior forward Lavoy Allen. Allen finished with a double-double of 10 points and 17 rebounds, half of the team’s total.
Three times, the Wildcats clawed to within two points, including at 63-61 with 4:27 remaining in the game. Fernandez answered with his seventh and final 3-pointer of the day. Altogether, the Owls shot 50 percent from 3-point land (54.2 percent overall from the field) and made 7-of-11 in the second half. Fernandez himself made 7-of-9 for the game and all four of his attempts in the second half.
“When you’re feeling good, I don’t know, I can’t explain the feeling,” Fernandez said. “You just throw it up there, and it goes in.
Dunphy called Fernandez’s play “unconscious.” For the guard’s fellow players, it got to the point, Brooks said, where they knew as soon as Fernandez shot the ball that it would go in, so they would immediately get back on defense.
“I was just telling him in the locker room that it got to the point where anything he shot, I was just running back down the court because I already thought it was good,” Brooks said. “Everything he shot was just the perfect release. You could tell because when he shot it, he knew it was good and went running back down the court. When you see someone like that, you want to get them the ball but not force it to them and get it to them in the flow of the offense.”
Villanova senior guard Scottie Reynolds said that “once a guy like that gets it going, it’s hard to stop him.”
“We watched film on him,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “I thought he might hurt us more creating shots for the other guys but not like that. He was amazing, he really was. He hit every big shot. You’ve got to give the kid a lot of credit.”
As the clock ticked down, Brooks, who tallied 20 points, sealed the deal for Temple. On back-to-back possessions, and with the shot clock winding down, he drove to the lane and hit two layups.
“One thing that we preach is just being aware of the shot clock,” Brooks said. “I just happened to have the ball, and the shot clock was winding down, and I had to make a play. Thankfully, those shots went down.”
Villanova junior forward Antonio Peña scored with 52.7 seconds left, and then it came down to Temple hitting its foul shots.
Freshman forward Rahlir Jefferson and senior guard Luis Guzman each hit the front ends of their 1-and-1s, and Brooks hit both foul shots for the final margin of victory.
And like the Dec. 13 win last year, the students stormed the court at the end.
“It’s my first time beating a ranked team,” Fernandez said. “I’m hoping we can do it more often.”
Temple returns to action Saturday against undefeated Seton Hall at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
“We’re going to enjoy the win,” Dunphy said. “What it’s going to do for us down the line, I have no idea. We’ll figure that out later on.”
Game Notes: Dunphy said sophomore forward/center Micheal Eric most likely re-tweaked the medial collateral ligament in his right knee that kept him out of the lineup for three games earlier this season. Eric went up for a rebound at the 19-minute mark of the second half and landed on the knee. After trying to walk it off, he crumpled to the ground in pain and did not return to the game. Williams took his spot…Three Villanova players finished in double figures – Reynolds (23 points), Peña (16 points) and junior guard Corey Fisher (14 points)…Before this Big 5 loss, Villanova had won 21 of its last 22 Big 5 games, a streak that started after a 53-52 loss to Temple back in the 2004-2005 season…The announced attendance at the Liacouras Center was 8,449 people, the largest home crowd to date this season…Christmas was in that crowd with Golden State rookie guard Stephen Curry. President Ann Weaver Hart was, too.
Jennifer Reardon can be reached at email@example.com.