With two starters out and a couple of its key players in foul trouble, the men’s basketball team was having an identity crisis in last night’s overtime win against Penn.
Junior guard Khalif Wyatt was suspended for the season opener while senior forward Scootie Randall was out due to injury. Senior guard Juan Fernandez and graduate center Micheal Eric both struggled to stay out of foul trouble in the second half, forcing every other player to step up.
With two players out and two starters sitting on the bench, Temple didn’t look like a team that was poised to win the Atlantic Ten Conference title, but rather a group of individuals who were trying to find their place on the team.
“I think Penn played better than we did, and we just scored more points,” coach Fran Dunphy said. “I thought we did some good things, some others, not.”
Coming into this season, rebounding was one of the Owls’ biggest questions. The Owls didn’t necessarily answer that question in their season opener. Eric was the only player on the team to have rebounds in the double digits, and when Eric wasn’t on the court, the Owls suffered.
Penn was able to assert itself in the paint in the second half as a result of Eric’s foul trouble. Eric had four fouls late in the game and was absent for the game’s final three-and-a-half minutes, which allowed Penn to go on a 5-0 run and send the game into overtime.
“[Eric] is still learning how to play,” Dunphy said. “We asked a lot of him. He’s going to get better each game.”
Junior guard T.J. DiLeo probably did more than Dunphy or anyone could have expected. In Randall and Fernandez’s absence in the frontcourt, DiLeo was the force off the bench that the Owls needed. He played 38 minutes and scored 10 points, both career highs.
“[DiLeo] got a chance to play and he did a great job,” Dunphy said. “He knows his role. If the next game he’s not playing as many minutes, he’s not going to be crying about it. I was proud of him tonight.”
Fernandez hit a game-changing three and iced the victory with two free throws in overtime.
“The last play of regulation, you’re hoping that [Fernandez] is going to have the ball in his hands,” Dunphy said. “He’s going to make something happen.”
Fernandez established himself as the team’s leading scorer in place of redshirt-senior guard Ramone Moore, who had an off-day shooting. Moore scored 15 points, but went only 6-20 from the field.
Junior forward Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson picked up some of Moore’s slack in his starting role at forward. He scored 10 points and collected five rebounds while logging 35 minutes. He also displayed his athleticism with a high-flying dunk midway through the second half and his ability to play perimeter defense.
While Moore was the Owls’ leading scorer last year and is expected to shine in his senior year, it must have been comforting to Dunphy and the coaching staff to see Fernandez, DiLeo and Hollis-Jefferson step up when Moore had an off game.
“We’re absolutely comfortable with that,” Dunphy said. “That size and athleticism is very helpful to us.”
While the Owls’ issues in the paint are still team concerns, Dunphy said he was happy to come out with a win in a tough Big-5 battle against Penn, a team he said has given them trouble during the past three years.
“This was the closest [game against Penn] that we’ve had,” Dunphy said. “We’re just happy to come out with a victory.”