The old Juan Fernandez is back, according to coach Fran Dunphy.
After scoring in double digits just twice after suffering concussion-like symptoms at Fordham on Jan. 23, Fernandez showed the type of offensive explosiveness he brings to the Temple roster by scoring 23 points on 7-11 shooting from behind the three-point line as the No. 20 Owls defeated La Salle 65-53 Sunday afternoon at the Tom Gola Arena.
“He’s gotten better over the last two weeks,“ Dunphy said. “The first couple of weeks he was hurting. We kept asking him how felt. He was a shell of himself the past four games. The process ended and now the old Juan Fernandez is back and certainly he was terrific today.”
Fernandez missed just one game due to the injury but definitely showed some signs of the bump he received on his head last month. Fernandez shot just 16-49 from the field up to today’s contest.
“They told me it was a day-by-day thing every day,” he said. “It was a process definitely and everybody helped me. The doctors were great with me and [head trainer] Steve Spiro was there for me every time I needed him. Everybody helped me a lot especially in giving me confidence.
“I was confident and everybody gave me their confidence in trying to get me back as soon as possible. This was the first time I had an injury like that and I just tried to forget about it and move on.”
Fernandez matched his career-high with seven three-pointers, a feat he accomplished in December when the Owls upset then No. 3 Villanova 75-65. The sophomore guard scored a career-high 33 points on 11-15 shooting.
“My teammates looked for me and I knew we were going to need to make shots,” Fernandez said. “I think the key was there when we started the second half. We got the lead and we knew we didn’t have to let them back in the game.”
With the wins over La Salle and Villanova, plus victories over Saint Joseph’s and Pennsylvania, the Owls recorded their fifth 4-0 Big 5 season and their 26th Big 5 crown in school history.
“I means a lot,” junior forward Lavoy Allen said. “Not only to us but to our school, our alumni and the Big 5 is a great tradition and it was really big for us to win it.”
“It’s a big deal for me,” Dunphy said. “I think it’s a big deal for Temple, for Temple basketball. From a personal standpoint, to be declared a champion of the Big 5 is very important. It may not hit them right away, but in five years, 10 years, 20 years, that’s bragging rights I think they will appreciate greatly.”
Temple (24-5, 12-2 Atlantic Ten Conference) and La Salle matched up nearly a month ago with the Owls winning 64-52 at the Liacouras Center behind 14 points from sophomore guard Ramone Moore. Sophomore forward Micheal Eric scored what was then a career-high 13 points on 6-9 shooting. The loss started a current eight game losing streak for the Explorers (11-17, 3-11 A-10).
Senior guard Luis Guzman opened the scoring with a three-pointer from the corner and Eric went on to score six straight points as the Owls went up 13-4.
La Salle responded with seven straight points and a 13-5 run of their own to tie the game at 19. Senior guard Rodney Green had six points during the run and finished the first half with 12 points and four assists.
Allen had a strong first 20 minutes of his own. Late in the first half, Allen scored seven straight points for Owls capped off by a three-pointer from the top of the key which put Temple up by three. Allen finished the first half with nine points and 12 rebounds (seven offensive).
Junior forward Jerrell Williams capped a strong first half for the Explorers with an alley-oop lay-in off a pass from Green as time expired. La Salle shot 50 percent from the field in the first half and entered halftime with a 33-32 lead.
The Owls shot only 35 percent from the field in the first half and were outscored 22-8 in the paint.
“I think it’s happened a number of times to us this season,” Dunphy said. “I was hoping it was going to happen to us today and it certainly did but we’ve been very lucky throughout the year with those kinds of performances of guys stepping up and delivering when we needed them to.”
The second half was a different story as the Owls came out firing. Temple scored the first 18 points highlighted by four triples from Juan Fernandez which put them up 50-33.
Allen added four points during the run and finished the game with 17 points and a career-high 21 rebounds, with nine coming on the offensive board. Allen’s rebounds are the most by a Temple player since Joe Newman pulled down 24 against Drexel on Feb. 5, 1973.
“The main thing is being aggressive,” Allen said. “[La Salle] is a great rebounding team so that’s one of the important things is keeping them off the backboard and that’s what I tried to do.”
“Lavoy is as good a rebounder as maybe [anyone] in the country,” Dunphy added. “He’s a terrific rebounded; he knows where to go. His defensive positioning is extraordinary, I’ve said that all along. He seldom makes a mistake on the defensive end in terms of his positioning. He has great hands, great positioning and he knows what he’s doing out there.
However, the Explorers bounced back from that big blow and responded with a 10-0 run to cut the game to single digits.
Green paced the Explorers scoring 21 points on 10-23 shooting while adding six assists. Williams added 17 points with five rebounds.
But that was the closest La Salle would get as the Owls won their fifth game in a row which ties them with Xavier atop the Atlantic Ten Conference. The win also earns Temple a bye in the upcoming Atlantic Ten Tournament in Atlantic City, N.J. from March 12-14.
“Coach every game says that every game is one step along the way and that’s how we take every game,” Fernandez said. “In this league it’s very hard to play on the road, especially Big 5 games and we have to be prepared. We made a name for ourselves and everybody wants to beat us. We just have to be focused.”
Temple has two games remaining in the regular season: Wednesday at Saint Louis and Saturday against George Washington, which is Senior Day at the Liacouras Center.
Pete Dorchak can be reached at email@example.com.