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February 21, 2013

Back on the map

A week ago at this time, Temple was hanging its head after its most deflating loss of the season.

A week later on the same floor, the Owls showed that - at least for now - they have righted the ship and can still play some very good basketball.

Behind a decisive first-half run and the best game of forward Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson's career, Temple beat La Salle, 82-74, Thursday night at the Liacouras Center to grab a share of the Big 5 title and - at least for now - put itself on the right side of the proverbial NCAA Tournament bubble with Selection Sunday a little less than a month away.

Because the Big 5 does not factor head-to-head competition into the city series standings, Temple and La Salle will share the championship with a 3-1 record in Big 5 play. The Owls now have either won outright or shared 27 city series titles, more than any team in the Big 5. They improved to 18-8 overall and 7-5 in the Atlantic 10, while La Salle dropped to 18-7 overall and 8-4 in the A-10.

Temple came into the game with an RPI of 49 while La Salle boasted an RPI of 35. This win, at this juncture of the season, will be just as important for the Owls as their victory over then-No. 3 Syracuse back on Dec. 22 at Madison Square Garden.

The 6-foot-6 Hollis-Jefferson, known more as a defensive stopper than an offensive juggernaut, posted career-highs of 23 points and 18 rebounds, including seven on the offensive glass. And on a night when the A-10's leading scorer, Temple guard Khalif Wyatt, scored a somewhat-pedestrian 17 points and shot just 3 of 9 from three-point range, senior forward Scootie Randall responded with his best overall effort of the season, grabbing 15 points and 10 rebounds. The 6-6 swingman swiped four boards off the offensive glass, contributed four assists and did not turn the ball over once in a team-high 37 minutes.

And although La Salle responded by shooting 56.3 percent in the second half and cut a Temple lead that once grew as large as 22 to single digits with less than six minutes to go, the Owls won the game with a decisive 18-1 run to close out the first half, and they held the Explorers to a paltry 32.1 percent shooting in the game's first 20 minutes.

The building wasn't completely full, but all 10,206 tickets for the highly-anticipated game were sold, making it Temple's first sellout of the season. The vibe in the building and the brand of basketball were a far, far cry from the Owls' miserable one-point loss last Thursday to a Duquesne team that had never won at the Liacouras Center and was getting its first A-10 win of the season and its first win since mid-December.

It's fair to say things could have gone one way or another after that loss. But since then, Temple grabbed a one-point win on the road two nights later at Massachusetts and then came through with its best 40-minute effort of the season.

Along the way, two very important things have happened.

One, the Owls have played a little bit of defense. Two, they have also proven that they can win without Wyatt playing the role of Superman every game. At UMass, Randall hit the decisive three-pointer, and he and Hollis-Jefferson played as well as anyone on the floor against La Salle, especially Hollis-Jefferson.

"I just came out aggressive and my teammates were looking for me," said the soft-spoken Hollis-Jefferson, who enjoys talking about himself as much as most people enjoy a root canal. "And I knocked down my shots tonight. I just had it going."

"Rahlir was just spectacular," Temple coach Fran Dunphy said. "Not only on the jump shooting but on a couple of tip-ins that were just so critical for our maintaining a decent cushion because they were coming after us."

After Tyrone Garland hit a jumper to get La Salle within 11 at 56-45 with 11:53 to go and then cut the lead to 10 less than a minute later with another bucket, Hollis-Jefferson scored on a tip-in to push the lead back to 12 and later scored on a putback that bumped Temple's lead to 13 at 62-49 with 10:12 remaining.

"When we were up big, we didn't want to take our foot off the pedal," Hollis-Jefferson said, "but they were able to get into the game by getting to the basket. And when we saw that they were getting closer, we decided we had to stop that right there and I was able to get tip-ins and 'Lif started making shots."

And just for kicks, Hollis-Jefferson scored the Owls' last six points of the game on three consecutive baseline jumpers.

But again, the first half is when Temple inserted the dagger. A D.J. Peterson three-pointer with 13:04 left in the half gave La Salle an 18-13 lead, but his team hit just one field goal - a Steve Zack putback - and scored seven points the rest of the way before halftime.

Meanwhile, Temple got all 10 of forward Anthony Lee's points in the first half on 4 of 5 shooting and eight points and eight rebounds from Hollis-Jefferson, who also chipped in three assists. Wyatt was relatively quiet in the first half with six points and three assists, but he did grab five boards.

La Salle, which has a realistic shot of gaining its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1992, had been considered the best team in the city prior to Thursday. But more than anything, these numbers tell the story of how the Explorers came undone against the Owls.

In its last 25 possessions of the first half, La Salle shot 1 of 15 from the floor, turned the ball over five times and scored just seven points.

Explorers point guard Tyreek Duren scored 16 points, but foul trouble limited him to 29 minutes. Fellow guard Ramon Galloway got 18 points but shot a miserable 4 of 15 from the floor. With Duren in foul trouble, Garland kept La Salle hanging around with 14 points on 7 of 15 shooting.

"We just could not stop them all night," La Salle coach John Giannini said. "Whatever we tried to do, they countered it."

"They had more energy and played better all around," Giannini added.

That hasn't always been the case for a consistently inconsistent Temple team this season.

"I think we showed what we could do when we focus for 40 minutes," said Wyatt, who scored five big points on a floater and a three-pointer after Galloway cut Temple's lead to 10 points at 66-56 with a little more than eight minutes to go. "I think we came out there and we had a mind set that we were going to play together and play together on both ends. And for 40 minutes, I think we did that and we came out with a big win. And we needed it."

Did they ever.

OwlScoop.com editor John Di Carlo can be reached at jgdicarlo@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @OwlScoop_com. or @jdicarlo.

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