Considering how much he loves Fran Dunphy, Steve Donahue may be a biased source.
But the Penn head coach made a bold prediction about Dunphy’s Temple squad after the Owls showed a ton of grit in a 60-51 win over the host Quakers Saturday afternoon at the Palestra (see observations).
“I think they’re an NCAA team,” Donahue said. “They just have to try to figure out consistency. When they play well, that’s as good a team as there is. They got better today and they figured out a way to win.”
Temple players agreed that Saturday’s victory — in which the Owls blew a 12-point lead, fell behind by three, and then scored the game’s final 12 points to prevail — could prove to be an important milestone in an up-and-down season.
“Big 5 games are always gonna be tough,” said senior Obi Enechionyia, who scored 10 of his team-high 15 points in the second half. “But we wanted it more, I think. And it showed in the end.”
Enechionyia admitted he didn’t think the 2017-18 campaign would go as it has for the Owls (10-9), who began the season with huge wins over Top 25 teams Auburn and Clemson before starting to sputter and losing six of their last eight heading into Saturday’s contest.
But the senior forward compared this team to the 2015-16 squad, which also hovered around the .500 mark before ending the season strong and making the NCAA Tournament as a 21-win squad.
“I see nothing different from this team,” Enechionyia said.
“I think we all thought it would be better than this. But after struggling a little bit, we have to get back to how we played in the beginning. We have a lot of games to go and I think we can show we’re the same team we were in the beginning of the season.”
It will certainly be an uphill climb for the Owls, who hit the road to face No. 12 Cincinnati on Wednesday and still have two games on the schedule against No. 7 Wichita State. But if the Owls can go 8-3 or 9-2 the rest of the way, that could at least put them onto the bubble heading into the American Athletic Conference tournament.
If nothing else, they’ll be a seasoned team in February and March, as almost all of their recent games have come down to the final minute — Saturday’s win proving to be no exception.
“It’s just who we are,” Enechionyia said. “For some reason, we let teams back, which we shouldn’t do. But at the end of the day, a win is a win. I’m happy with how we played, even though we let them back in.”
Along with Enechionyia, fellow upperclassmen Shizz Alston and Josh Brown also made big plays down the stretch with Alston kickstarting the 12-0 run to end the game with a game-tying three pointer and Brown hitting a big three of his own in between that shot and a tough runner from freshman J.P. Moorman III.
Afterwards, Alston, a Philadelphia native, said he felt like he “needed to make a play.”
“It was amazing,” Alston said. “Every time there’s a game here, it feels like something special happens. Today was no different.”
Indeed, Saturday’s game was a nice place for Temple to show its character as the Palestra was filled even in the corners, with fans from both teams evenly represented.
The size of the crowd and the atmosphere was not lost on Dunphy, who spent 17 seasons in the historic building as Penn’s head coach and has lost only one game to the Quakers since leaving Penn for Temple in 2006.
“It’s different today [coming back] than it was 12 years ago — 12 years ago it was surreal, daunting, crazy,” Dunphy said. “It gets easier every year. It’s still a special place, special university. And while you can change the lighting or the floor, it’s always gonna be the Palestra. It’s still a spectacular place.”
Did it feel as loud as Big 5 games used to be?
“It was today,” Dunphy said. “It was loud as hell. We were in the huddle one time and someone made a halfcourt shot or something? Pretty cool. I’d like to see film of that.”
In addition to a Penn student making a halfcourt shot during one break in the action, the Penn Band played the Eagles fight song at on point with more than 7,000 fans then breaking into an E-A-G-L-E-S chant a day before the NFC Championship Game at Lincoln Financial Field.
Just like Dunphy noticed the student halfcourt shot, Donahue noticed that chant reverberating around the gym.
“This is a unique city,” said Donahue, who previously coached at Cornell and Boston College after Dunphy gave him his college start as a Penn assistant throughout the 1990s. “That doesn’t happen, this much interest. College basketball in this city is passionate, it’s huge, it’s a fun place to coach.
“You get an Eagles chant in the middle of the game, which gets you all fired up. They’re not doing that in Boston for the Patriots, trust me.”