With one well-timed lineup adjustment, Temple set itself up to beat Wisconsin in its home opener Wednesday night and perhaps change the course of its season.
After All-American forward Ethan Happ had used a variety of post moves and persistence in the paint to hurt the Owls to the tune of a game-high 23 points, Temple coach Fran Dunphy went to a smaller lineup that consisted of four guards and Obi Enechionyia.
Enechionyia, Temple’s 6-foot-10 senior forward and co-captain, rewarded his coach for the move by coming up with two key blocks and a third defensive stop of Happ that helped the Owls hold the Badgers scoreless over the last 3 minutes, 27 seconds of the game and claim a 59-55 win at the Liacouras Center.
With the win, Temple improved to 5-2 with Saturday’s Big 5 game against Saint Joseph’s on the horizon. Wisconsin, which has lost four games to top-25 teams, dropped to 4-6.
After allowing George Washington to shoot 60 percent overall and better than 56 percent from 3-point range in Sunday’s upset road loss, Temple needed something to right itself at that end of the floor. And although the Owls weren’t necessarily bad defensively in Wednesday night’s low-scoring affair, a game that featured eight ties and 16 lead changes, Happ’s success in the paint was making things look like more of the same for Temple.
Then Enechionyia, who finished the game with 11 points, seven rebounds and four blocks in 32 minutes, lit a spark that brought many of the 6,713 fans in the building to their feet.
“Coach did a good job of recognizing that and seeing that I could guard him,” Enechionyia said succinctly of the move that eventually took big men Ernest Aflakpui and Damion Moore off the floor and matched him up with Happ.
An Enechionya layup got Temple within a point at 55-54 with 2:23 to go. On the ensuing possession, he blocked Happ, and Quinton Rose hit 1 of 2 free throws at the other end to tie the game with two minutes to play.
Nineteen seconds later, at almost the same spot on the floor, Enechionyia blocked Happ again. And at the other end, he grabbed an important offensive rebound after Josh Brown missed the front end of a 1-and-1, allowing Shizz Alston Jr. to eventually knock down the game-winning free throws with 1:09 to go.
Still needing another stop, Enechionyia again denied Happ, this time by keeping his feet set, guarding him straight up and forcing a missed shot that Brown corralled. But Alston, after freeing himself up with a crossover dribble, air balled a 3-point attempt from the top of the key.
“I’ve got to get in a little better shape,” Alston admitted when describing the miss. “Wisconsin, they grind it out. So I was little tired. I didn’t get my legs up under me as best as I could, so it was a little short. I just knew I had to make up for that and not let my teammates down.”
That, he did. Temple survived again when Wisconsin’s Kobe King missed a three with 12 seconds left, and Alston knocked down two more free throws to seal the win.
Alston, who scored a team-high 22 points and dished out four assists and just one turnover in 37 minutes, was a fan of going small at the end of the game.
“I feel like that’s our strongest lineup at the end of the game,” Alston said, “and the smartest lineup also. Damion and Ern are good players, but down the stretch, I like the four guards with Obi.”
“It’s a matchup problem,” Alston added. “Not many five-man centers can guard Obi. We can space the floor out, get into gaps and kick it to Obi and he can make a play. So not many guys can guard him out there.”
In going a perfect 6 of 6 from the foul line, Alston has now knocked down 52 consecutive free throws, breaking Lynn Greer’s previous program record of 49.
Greer was in attendance Wednesday night. Ironically enough, when Brown had to come out of the game after taking a forearm to the nose that splattered his No. 1 jersey with blood, he returned in a new jersey wearing No. 14, the same number Greer wore from 1997 to 2002 in establishing himself as one of the best guards in Temple history.
“It means a lot to me,” Alston said. “I looked up to Lynn growing up and I was at almost every one of his home games when he played here, so it means a lot to me – him being here and me getting the record while he was here.”
“Most important,” Alston added, “was us getting the win. The record doesn’t really mean much it we would have lost, so I’m glad we got the win.”
Temple, which knows it could and probably should be 7-0 right now instead of 5-2 with losses to La Salle and George Washington, turned in its best defensive performance of the season. Wisconsin’s 55 points were a season-low for a Temple opponent, and Enechionyia’s ability to put the clamps on Happ, who was named a third-team Associated Press All-American last March, was obviously critical.
“He doesn’t have much rise, so his pump fakes are what set him apart and give him the chance to finish over the lane,” Enechionyia said of guarding Happ. “So it’s tough to guard that. You don’t want to jump and get into foul trouble and things like that. I stayed down, kept my hands straight up and tried to guard him as best as I could.”
The improved defense also went a long way on a night when Temple shot just 3 of 14 from 3-point range and 8 of 15 from the free-throw line. Rose, who came into the game averaging 19 points a game, finished with just nine points on 4 of 10 shooting.
After seven games, this does look like one of the more talented teams Dunphy has had in his 12 seasons on North Broad Street. The question is whether or not Temple can use Wednesday night’s improved defensive effort to spark a run moving forward in a season the Owls hope will end with a deeper run in the NCAA Tournament.
“You hope so,” Dunphy said. “We have another three games in this home stretch against three Philly teams (St. Joe’s, Villanova and Drexel) that are going to be battles in each and every moment. Every bounce is important. Every possession is critical. It’s nice to get it, but now we have to turn our attention to St. Joe’s Saturday and see what we can do there.”
Alston, for one, wants to break what has been an unwelcomed pattern.
“It seems like every time we get a big win, we play an A-10 school,” Alston said with a smile, referring to the previous losses to La Salle and George Washington. “So we’re back at this again. We’re 0-2 vs. the A-10, so we’re going to go hard tomorrow in practice and we’ve got to get a good one vs. St. Joe’s on Saturday.”
Listen to Wednesday night’s postgame interviews with Enechionyia, Alston, Dunphy and Wisconsin coach Greg Gard here: