The men’s basketball team brought an Atlantic Ten Championship back from Atlantic City, N.J., for the third straight year. Temple defeated Richmond, 56-52, Sunday.
The men’s basketball team had a little wiggle room as it headed to Atlantic City, N.J., last weekend.
With a spot in the NCAA Tournament basically guaranteed, Temple was not forced to make a deep run in the Atlantic Ten Tournament to earn inclusion in the field of 65. That was not the case the previous two seasons, as the Owls were forced to win the A-10 Tournament to earn an automatic bid to the NCAAs.
That didn’t stop fourth-year coach Fran Dunphy and the No. 12 Owls – the No. 1 seed in the A-10 Tournament – from dominating A-10 postseason play en route to their third straight A-10 crown this year, though. The last A-10 team to accomplish that feat was Massachusetts from 1992-1996.
“We are thrilled to be representing the Atlantic 10 as the champion at this point,” Dunphy said. “We are very thrilled to be going to the NCAA Tournament again and representing a wonderful university and a great league.”
The Owls were not expected to reach the finals this season, as a preseason coaches’ poll picked them to finish fifth. But the Owls finished the regular season with 26 wins and earned a share of the A-10 regular-season title with Xavier [Temple held the head-to-head tiebreaker].
“All three years we’ve been not picked to win the Championship or not even come close,” junior forward Lavoy Allen said. “We’ve been underrated from the beginning of the season, but we found a way to get through that and come together as a team. This year I would say was the toughest of the three. The A-10 altogether was very tough this year, so it definitely feels good.”
The Owls opened quarterfinal play last Friday afternoon against No. 8 seed St. Bonaventure (15-16 overall, 7-9 A-10). Sophomore guard Juan Fernandez got hot early thanks to three 3-pointers. A 19-4 run gave Temple an early 24-8 lead, but the Bonnies fought back with a 13-4 run of their own that cut the lead to seven points. An Allen lay-in right before the halftime buzzer and a 9-2 run to open the second half put the game out of reach. Temple advanced with a 69-51 victory.
“Most of the time we start the game by going down low, but today, it was the 3-point shot that got us going,” Fernandez said. “When [the game] starts and you make the first one or the second one, you want the ball, and if it keeps going in, you keep shooting, and if not, you find your teammates. Our offense today was really moving the ball and finding the open man.”
Fernandez finished with 17 points along with seven assists, while Allen dropped 14 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, the most boards in the quarterfinals since 1995. Sophomore forward Micheal Eric added 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting. The Owls shot 53 percent from the field and dished out 18 assists while holding St. Bonaventure to only 36 percent shooting.
“They’re a terrific team, terrific defensive team,” Bonnies coach Mark Schmidt said. “They’re a physical team. They run a great half-court offense where they protect the ball and take great shots, and we had a hard time keeping them in front. That’s Temple. That’s how they play, and that’s why they’re one of the top teams in the country.”
That forced a semifinal matchup with No. 5 seed Rhode Island, who defeated Saint Joseph’s and Saint Louis to make it to the final four. Temple defeated the Rams twice during the regular season, and the third meeting of the 2009-2010 campaign produced the same outcome.
The game was close for most of the first half until the Owls used a 12-3 run and went to the break with a 34-17 lead. That was all the separation the Owls needed, as they cruised to a 57-44 victory last Saturday afternoon against the Rams (23-9 overall, 9-7 A-10).
“It’s a real good win for us,” Dunphy said. “I thought we played as good as basketball as we could for the most part in the first half. I think we controlled the tempo and pace, and I think we did as good of a job as we could, and we kind of did what we had to do in the second half.”
It was another well-rounded offensive game for the Owls, who were led by senior guard Ryan Brooks’ 16 points and 14 points, seven assists and three steals from Fernandez. Fernandez tied his career-high with seven assists in both the quarterfinal and semifinal games and also did not turn the ball over once. Allen recorded nine points and 10 rebounds, the fifth time he had pulled down 10 or more boards in A-10 Tournament play.
But the real story of the game was the Temple defense shutting down the Rams’ offense. Rhode Island, who averages 77 points per game, scored 33 points below its season average on just 27 percent shooting.
“They play very solid basketball,” Rhode Island coach Jim Baron said. “They’re playing with a lot of confidence. They have very good confidence with very good inside play and very good outside play. That’s why they’ve been in the Top 20 all year long. It’s a heck of a team.”
With the win last Saturday, the Owls advanced to the finals for the 16th time in school history – an A-10 record – and a date with the Richmond Spiders last Sunday afternoon. The Spiders (26-8 overall, 13-3 A-10) defeated Massachusetts and then Xavier in overtime to reach the finals.
The first half was a tight battle, as the Owls held a slim 29-25 lead after 20 minutes. Temple went on its expected second-half run and jumped out to a 44-32 lead thanks to back-to-back 3-pointers from Brooks.
The Spiders produced a 7-0 run of their own, and with the Owls going scoreless for more than five minutes late in the game, Richmond trailed, 51-50, with less than a minute to play. With 22 seconds remaining and the shot clock winding down, Brooks drew a foul and sunk two free throws.
After two free throws from sophomore guard Ramone Moore, Spiders junior guard Kevin Anderson cut the lead back to two points. But with three seconds left in the game, Moore sealed Temple’s third consecutive A-10 crown at the foul line by sinking one-of-two free throws to put the Owls up by four points at 56-52, the final margin of victory.
Fernandez scored a game-high 18 points and earned Most Outstanding Player and First Team All-Tournament awards. Allen was also named to the All-Tournament team. His 11 rebounds marked his sixth A-10 Tournament game with 10-plus rebounds. He became just the fourth player to accomplish that feat.
Now the Owls head to their third straight NCAA Tournament riding a 10-game winning streak, their longest since 2000-2001. That year’s 10-game winning streak was snapped in the Elite Eight.
Temple, the No. 5 seed, will face No. 12 seed Cornell Friday afternoon in Jacksonville, Fla. The Owls are aiming to get past the first round, something they failed to do the previous two seasons when they were eliminated by Michigan State and Arizona State.
“We feel that we are experienced at this now, and we’re due to hopefully make a run or get a win under our belt,” Brooks said. “We’re looking forward to the challenge. It’s an exciting time of the year, and we think we are playing very well right now, and it can only get better.”
Pete Dorchak can be reached at email@example.com.