The morale of Temple’s men’s basketball team diminished as D.J. Rivera vanished above the rim at the Liacouras Center.
A freshman guard for Saint Joseph’s, Rivera took to the air to dunk for two points in the first half, coming on the receiving end of a thunderous alley-oop from teammate Jawan Carter.
That basket did more for the Hawks than just extend their lead.
It also stole the Owls’ momentum as they stumbled to an 80-67 home loss Wednesday night against their Big 5 and Atlantic Ten Conference rival.
After that dunk, the Owls’ bench turned from energetic to listless. Towels were suddenly draped over players’ heads, and the team’s season-long losing streak was on its way to reaching four games.
Though Rivera scored just seven points, Temple coach Fran Dunphy said there was no stopping the Philadelphia native’s effort.
“A kid like Rivera woke the game up a little for St. Joe’s right there,” Dunphy said of the dunk. “He stepped up and made a couple of big, big baskets for them.
“He made a jumper at the end of the shot clock right in front of our bench. And that’s an easy shot to defend. He has nowhere to go.”
Considered the most rigorous stretch of their schedule, the Owls will conclude a tough five-game run with a stop at Massachusetts Saturday. Dunphy said “learning to finish” could help the Owls (6-8) stop the bleeding.
But before getting an opportunity to do so, the Owls kept three streaks alive. They’ve started the season winless (0-2) against A-10 and Big 5 teams. And they’ve lost all seven games in which they’ve scored fewer than 70 points.
And Wednesday’s loss doesn’t bode well for the Owls and their second meeting later this season with the Hawks (10-5 overall, 3-0 A-10). Against St. Joe’s, the team that wins the first meeting has gone on to sweep the season series 17 of 24 times since the two schools joined the A-10.
All history aside, this one wasn’t always the Hawks’ game. In fact, the Owls held the lead for the game’s first 12 minutes, stretching it to seven points on three occasions.
That lead didn’t last as the Hawks chipped away with the interior play of Ahmad Nivins and Rob Ferguson, who combined for five two-foot baskets in the first half. The Owls lacked a sizeable counterpart for the Hawks’ frontcourt duo, and the Hawks exploited that. Nivins ended with a team-high 20 points and Ferguson finished with 17.
After taking the lead, the Hawks looked outside. A three-pointer by St. Joe’s Pat Calathes with six minutes gone in the first half seemed almost insignificant at the time.
Other than it being St. Joe’s first trey of the game, it opened the floodgates for the Hawks’ outside shooting.
Mark Tyndale was having his best night of the season, but it was no match for the Hawks. The junior guard, despite leading all scorers with 23 points, said he “didn’t do anything to help us win.”
He didn’t get much help, either. Sophomore guard Dionte Christmas was held to a season-low nine points, the first time he’s been in single-digit scoring all year. The A-10’s leading scorer, Christmas shot 2-of-12 from the field and 1-of-5 from the free throw line.
It was that kind of night.
The kind of night when the Hawks made seven of their 14 attempts from beyond the arc.
The kind of night when St. Joe’s seemed to have a three ball for each of Temple’s late second-half buckets.
The kind of night when an 11-2 Temple run in the second half was wiped away by the Hawks’ outside shooting.
“Even though they’re undersized and don’t play with much of their bench, I was impressed,” St. Joe’s coach Phil Martelli said of the Owls.
The Owls’ toughest stretch of the season continues with Saturday’s visit to Massachusetts, where the Owls were held to 34 points a year ago, a program low during the 24-season coaching tenure of John Chaney.
This year’s version of the Minutemen (11-4) appears a bit more balanced than the 2005 squad. As a team, they lead the A-10 in blocks, rebounds and assists.
Senior forward Rashaun Freeman boasts the A-10’s best field goal percentage, at 63.8 percent, while teammates Tiki Mayben (4.79 assists) and Stephane Lasme (4.93 blocks) lead their respective stat categories.
The most important stat for the Owls could be trying to pick up their coach’s first win against UMass. During his coaching career, Dunphy’s teams are 0-2 against the Minutemen.
Christopher A. Vito can be reached at email@example.com.