The Big-5 season produced its share of emotion and drama this year.
It all started with a block.
Penn senior guard Zack Rosen, who had already dropped 21 points on Temple in the Big 5 season opener on Nov. 14, cued up for an 18-footer that would have broken a tie with less than a minute left.
Owls’ junior guard TJ DiLeo stood him up, ending the possession and forcing overtime where the Owls would pull out a 73-67 victory.
It was the earliest a Big-5 game had ever been played, and the way it panned out set the stage for a tumultuous Big-5 season.
No. 23 Temple (22-6, 11-3 Atlantic Ten Conference) finished at 3-1 in the Big 5 and shared the title this year with St. Joseph’s after the Hawks defeated the Owls 82-72 on Saturday night.
“That’s a national-level team. I’ll call it the way it is,” St. Joe’s coach Phil Martelli said. “The people that vote don’t handle it real well. That’s a team that played a team on the road, a league rival, in Philadelphia and they’ll dare to drop them out.”
“They’re one of the 15-best teams in the country,” he added. “If we get another chance in Atlantic City, [N.J.] it’ll be worth it because no one runs a team or program better than [Owls’ coach Fran Dunphy].”
To understand the pulse of the Big 5, look no further than Dunphy, who played at La Salle, coached at Penn for 17 years and has led the Owls for the past six.
Dunphy, always more than willing to pay respect to opposing Big-5 schools, spun one of his most emotional yarns after the Owls’ overtime win against La Salle on Wednesday, Feb. 22.
The day before, Dunphy attended the Big 5 Hall of Fame induction ceremony and sat with former La Salle player and local basketball legend, Alonzo Lewis.
“I’m having the time of my life because I know most of the room. I’m in the back of the room and I sit down beside Alonzo Lewis,” Dunphy said. “I spent an hour with Alonzo Lewis yesterday afternoon. Last night, the man lost his life in a tragic car accident. I got the chance to be with that guy, a great La Salle player and a guy I admire so much as a human being.”
Lewis was struck by a car and killed while crossing an intersection in East Falls, Pa. The man who scored 1,137 points for the Explorers was on his way to a basketball game.
“There was a piece of chocolate cake,” Dunphy said. “Lewis said, ‘I can’t eat this. I would love to eat this, but I can’t. But I’m going to bring this to my daughter and she’ll enjoy it.’”
“I need to tell that story because of what I feel about Alonzo Lewis and the quality and character and integrity that the man lived his life with,” Dunphy added. “I’m so proud to have known him and proud to have [sat] with him.”
Dunphy’s relation to Lewis is a common tale among a tradition that has created so many personal relationships during its 57-year history.
Temple certainly took things personally in its second Big-5 matchup, a game against Villanova on Dec. 10. The rumors that Wildcats’ coach Jay Wright lobbied to keep Temple out of the Big East after the program was rumored to be on the verge of receiving an all-sports invite were fresh, and the Owls seemed to have a greater purpose as they cruised to a 78-67 victory behind redshirt-senior guard Ramone Moore’s career-high 32 points.
Last week, Temple played La Salle and St. Joe’s in buildings named Tom Gola and Mike Hagan, respectively, because a Big-5 game is not just a matchup of two teams, it’s a contest between two traditions.
Against the Explorers on Feb. 22 in a building named after a man who scored more than 2,400 points and led La Salle to a national championship, Temple held its own until it seemed like Tom Gola’s legend intervened to try to steal a win for the Explorers.
The Owls collapsed down the stretch in regulation, but were able to eek out an 80-79 win in overtime. But that didn’t stop Explorers’ coach Dr. John Giannini from offering his respects to Temple in a classic Big-5 move.
“They’re amazing,” Giannini said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a team play better offensively. I would be happy to criticize ourselves, but I just have to praise Temple.”
With a win on Saturday, Feb. 25, Temple would have swept the Big 5 for just the second time in the last quarter century and won the city title outright for the second time in the past three years. In the end, playing at home in a building with a Big-5 history richer than any save the Palestra, St. Joe’s was just too proud to let that happen.
“We knew it would be like that coming into the game with Big-5 rivals,” Moore said. “It didn’t have to do too much with the game, they just played better than us.”
The Big 5 is the city’s great basketball equalizer. It keeps a team like the Owls, who are nationally ranked and reportedly on their way to bigger and better things in the Big East, grounded.
The Hawks owed it to themselves and to the Big-5 tradition to take Temple down.
“It’s an honor to compete against them,” Martelli said. “That was my conversation with their seniors, just in case I didn’t see them again. They came in here for a shoot around and everyone of those kids came over and shook my hand, saying thank you for letting them come in to shoot in the venue.”
“That doesn’t happen,” Martelli added. “That happens because the head coach runs a program that’s built on that kind of foundation.”
The foundation that Martelli is referring to is the Big 5, a tradition unlike any other in college basketball.
Joey Cranney can be reached at