WHEN THE SCHEDULE came out, yesterday's Temple-La Salle rematch at the Gola Arena looked, well, meaningful.
Turns out, it was. But only for one team.
You can't help but feel bad for what's happened to the Explorers this season. Injuries have decimated them. One by one, they've lost three senior starters. And there's nothing they can do about it except soldier on.
"I watch that and it's difficult to stomach, to be honest with you," said Temple coach Fran Dunphy, who played for the Explorers and was an assistant at 20th and Olney. "From a competitive standpoint it's almost disheartening."
From a Temple standpoint, it's hard not to appreciate what these Owls are all about. They won, 65-53, after trailing by one at the break. The 20th-ranked team in the land is now 24-5, 12-2 in the Atlantic 10, tied for first place with Xavier with two games left. Just in case, the Owls hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. The Musketeers have Fordham away, and St. Bonaventure at home. The Owls are in St. Louis Wednesday, where be the first team to 40 could win, before finishing with George Washington on North Broad Street on Saturday.
If nothing else, they've already clinched a bye into the A-10 quarterfinals.
It's been one of the best regular seasons in program history. This gave them their 26th Big 5 title. It's the seventh one they don't have to share. And the fifth time they've gone 4-0 (they actually beat La Salle and Saint Joseph's twice). The last time was 1987-88.
"That's a very big deal to me," said Dunphy, who went 4-0 with Penn in 2000-01, and 4-0 as a top reserve with the great La Salle team in 1968-69. "It might not hit [these players] right away, but 5, 10, 20 years from now, they'll have those bragging rights. And they'll appreciate that greatly."
For now . . .
"[Dunphy] says every game is a step along the way," said sophomore guard Juan Fernandez, who had 23 points. "That's how we take every game. In this league, it's always hard on the road, especially in the Big 5.
"We've made a name for ourselves. Everyone wants to beat us. That's how we stay focused."
Last weekend, Temple had to go to overtime against St. Joe's at the Palestra. This time, they scored the first 18 points of the second half to pretty much ensure that wouldn't be necessary. Fernandez made four consecutive three-pointers in that 5 1/2-minute stretch. He would finish 7-for-11 from the arc, effectively scuttling La Salle's zone.
The Explorers responded with a 10-0 spurt. But the lead was soon back up to double digits, and it never got closer than 10 the rest of the way, even though the Owls missed five of their last six free throws.
Fernandez suffered a concussion on Jan. 23 against Fordham, when he was hit above the eye. This was his first start in six games.
"I learned it's not good," he said, after tying a career-best for treys made. "They were symptoms I've never felt before. [The doctors] told me it was a day-to-day thing. I felt better every day. That's what was important.
"Everyone was helping me a lot, especially giving me confidence so I could get back as soon as possible."
Junior center Lavoy Allen became the first Temple player to get 20 rebounds since Joe Newman had 24 for Harry Litwack in a 97-63 win over Drexel at McGonigle Hall on Feb. 5, 1973. Allen grabbed 21; nine were offensive. He also scored 17 on 7-for-11 shooting. He could have had a 20-20 had he not missed four of his six freebies.
"He does the ordinary things extraordinarily well," marveled La Salle coach John Giannini.
His team was outboarded, 50-27. After shooting 50 percent in the first 20 minutes, the Explorers went 9-for-29 after intermission. They were outscored by 21 from the arc, and attempted four foul shots.
"We played hard, at least," Dr. John said. "For some reason, we just didn't have the same energy at the start of the second half.
"There was a point in the game where you get a sense of, 'Oh, no, here we go.' It's getting away from you. It's amazing how a few plays here and there can make a game not close [any more] like that."
Senior Rodney Green, who deserves better, had 21 points and six assists. Jerrell Williams added 17. Freshman Aaric Murray played 23 minutes, which isn't nearly enough.
The Explorers, who are just trying to get into the A-10 field, have lost eight in a row. They are 11-17, 3-11 in the conference. They host Massachusetts Wednesday, then go to St. Joe's on Saturday afternoon.
Temple is trying to see how high an NCAA seed it can earn.
"We've been very lucky throughout the year," Dunphy noted. "I can't imagine . . . what La Salle's had to [go through]."
The Owls are real good, too. But it's still a point well taken.