With its NCAA tournament hopes on the brink and a share of the Big 5 title on the line, Temple decisively defeated Big 5 rival La Salle 82-74 Thursday.
Temple (18-8, 7-5 Atlantic 10 Conference) was led by senior forward Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson who had a career high 23 points and 18 rebounds – including a career-high seven offensive rebounds – constructing his second straight double-double and fourth of the season.
After the game, coach Fran Dunphy praised Hollis-Jefferson’s offensive performance.
“Rahlir was just spectacular, not only on the jump shooting, but a couple of the tip-ins that were so critical for us to maintain a decent cushion because they were coming after us,” Dunphy said.
Hollis-Jefferson added that the confidence instilled by his teammates allowed him to succeed on the offensive side of the ball.
“I just came out aggressive,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “My teammates were looking for me and I was able to knock down my shots tonight. [I] just had it going.”
Defensively, the Owls looked sharp, holding the Explorers to just 32 percent from the field and 22 percent from three-point range in the first half. Temple went on to spark an 18-1 run toward the end of the first half, leading La Salle 39-25 as the teams headed into halftime.
“We did a good job on the defensive end, but we made some shots,” Dunphy said. “Any time you can put that kind of distance between us and a good team like La Salle, we were thrilled by that.”
Senior guard Khalif Wyatt had 17 points on 6-of-13 from the field and 3-of-9 from beyond the arc. As the Owls’ leading scorer, Wyatt said his focus was to distribute the ball to his teammates.
“I was trying to make plays for my teammates and just take what the defense gave me,” Wyatt said. “When the game gets close and they started coming back, my teammates trusted me with the ball and I just tried to reward them.”
One of the factors in Temple’s offensive outbreak in the first half was La Salle guard Tyreek Duren’s early foul trouble.
“We were fortunate for him to be in foul trouble in the first half, there’s no doubt about it,” Dunphy said. “Certainly, Tyreek is the straw that stirs that drink.”
La Salle (18-7, 8-4 Atlantic 10 Conference) had the opportunity to claim sole possession of the Big 5 title with a victory, which would have been its first since in more than 20 years. Coach John Giannini attributed the loss to poor shooting and failing to answer Temple in the first half.
“It was a bad time we picked to not be at our best because there was a lot at stake,” Giannini said. “We missed some easy shots early on and our biggest problem was that we couldn’t stop them all night.”
The Owls picked up a share of the Big 5 title with tonight’s win, something that Dunphy said is an honor to be a part of.
“Any time you can be part of a championship or co-championship in this city, it’s really important,” Dunphy said. “That’s the nicest thing that happened to us tonight. Obviously, we won another league game, but we also got a share of a title that’s very meaningful to all of the people who have followed the Big 5 for so many years.”
Moving forward, Temple travels to Charlotte (18-7, 6-5 Atlantic 10 Conference) this weekend to face the 49ers on Sunday.
“At this point, I’m hoping that we’re seeing the light and that we’re understanding how good we can be, but we have to be focused every single minute, every single possession,” Dunphy said.
Kimberly Slaven can be reached at email@example.com.