Ernest Aflakpui was Temple’s “rock” on defense in the Charleston Classic final on Sunday, coach Fran Dunphy said.
The junior center drew three charges and blocked a shot in the second half of Temple’s win against Clemson University in South Carolina. If it were up to Dunphy, Aflakpui would have never needed to slide underneath the driving Tigers to impede their paths to the rim.
“While our numbers were pretty good defensively, there are still some gaps in our game that we need to take care of,” Dunphy said. “We’re not as good as we could be, and that’s across the line. It starts with the guards. They have to keep people in front of them, and so our bigs should never get into foul trouble because the opposing guards shouldn’t be getting by us to get to the bigs.”
Heading into Sunday’s game against La Salle (3-3), Temple (3-0) has the third-highest strength of record in Division I after beating Old Dominion University, Auburn University and Clemson in the Charleston Classic. Temple only trailed for eight minutes, 51 seconds of the possible 120 minutes.
The Owls received four votes in the Week 3 Associated Press Top 25 poll. They’ve started the season with a 3-0 record for the first time since the 2012-13 season, when they started with six wins in a row on their way to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Senior forward Obi Enechionyia earned the all-tournament MVP award for the Charleston Classic, just like he did after Temple beat ranked Florida State University and West Virginia University teams last year to win the National Invitation Tournament Season Tip-Off. He is two points away from becoming the 52nd Temple player to score 1,000 career points.
After its two wins in Brooklyn, New York, Temple closed out November 2016 with a six-point road win against St. Joseph’s before it posted a 4-4 record in December on its way to a 16-16 season.
After winning their second early-season tournament in a row, the Owls are shifting their attention to La Salle.
“I hope [winning the Charleston Classic] sets the tone, but as we go to La Salle on Sunday, nobody is going to care what we did last week,” Dunphy said. “It doesn’t matter. We need to play well against La Salle, and they are quite capable of putting a lot of numbers up.”
“I think it’s going to be a good test for us,” sophomore guard Alani Moore II said.
La Salle started its season with three straight wins, including a double-overtime win against Penn on Nov. 13 at The Palestra. La Salle will enter Sunday’s game looking to end a three-game losing streak.
Two of the Explorers’ losses during their winless streak are to ranked teams. They lost, 82-74, to then-No.20 Northwestern University on Nov. 18. La Salle scored 50 second-half points, shot 67.9 percent from the field in the second half, scored 42 points in the paint and committed six fewer turnovers than Northwestern.
The Explorers’ most recent loss came to No. 11 University of Miami at Santander Arena in Reading, Pennsylvania. La Salle made 16-of-17 free-throw attempts, but it went 0-for-15 from 3-point range.
Dunphy said La Salle’s defense is improving. The Explorers held Miami to 36.7 percent from the field and kept them to less than 70 points for the first time this season. They allowed Northwestern to shoot 56.1 percent.
Temple will have a chance to beat La Salle to earn its first Big 5 win for the second year in a row. Pookie Powell and B.J. Johnson combined for 40 points in La Salle’s overtime loss at the Liacouras Center in 2016.
Johnson, a redshirt-senior swingman and Lower Merion High School graduate, leads La Salle with 21.7 points and 10.7 rebounds per game this season, and Powell, a redshirt-junior guard, averages 14.3 points per game.
Junior guard Shizz Alston Jr. has known Johnson for several years and understands the Big 5 tradition because his father played for Temple in the 1990s. He is looking forward to Sunday’s game.
“It means a lot to me, being from Philly,” Alston said. “But we played against [La Salle] all summer in pickup games, so this game means a lot to us.”