SOUTH KINGSTON, R.I. – Temple has rode a six-game winning streak to the top of the Atlantic 10 after Saturday’s 73-56 win at Rhode Island. While it’s been a balanced effort for the Owls to get to this point, there’s no question that their perimeter trio of Ramone Moore, Khalif Wyatt and Juan Fernandez is the driving force behind this team’s success.
The Owls’ perimeter trio asserted themselves right out of the gates on Saturday, scoring the game’s first eight points on two three-pointers and a steal and layup by Moore, who leads the Atlantic 10 in scoring (Wyatt is second in that category). That helped them build a 16-5 lead before the first media timeout and later a 16-point lead in the half.
Moore, who led the Owls with a game-high 22 points, has been especially driven during his senior season. It isn’t just because it’s his last go-round, although that’s surely part of it for a player who has steadily improved over his career. Moore changed his uniform number to 10 this season after the death of his cousin in a car accident. The reason behind it was adding up the digits in his cousin’s football jersey (55) and a birthday of March 10.
Wyatt was last season’s top sixth man in the Atlantic 10 and has moved into the starting lineup without a hitch. While Moore has led the team in scoring ten times this season, Wyatt has done it nine times, and both scored 20 or more points in the same game twice in the last two weeks. In the second half, Wyatt buried a very deep back-breaking three-pointer en route to scoring 13 of his 16 in that frame.
More than just the individuals, this unit is clearly bigger than the sum of their parts for a reason. They play well together and none is caught up trying to score the most points. Moore and Wyatt each average over three per game, while Fernandez is known for his passing but has a jumper that must be respected. In fact, all three shoot over 40 percent from long range on the season. In addition, all three are at least 6’4″, so they have good size, which creates matchup problems.
“They all can score, but they all like to get the ball up and help their teammates,” said head coach Fran Dunphy. “It’s as much fun for them to make an assist as to score.”
Temple has been quite reliant on its perimeter trio for a couple of reasons. One is the absence of Scootie Randall, who is likely redshirting this season after having a more difficult recovery from off-season knee surgery. Last season’s Most Improved Player in the Atlantic 10, Randall figured to start and play a major role on this team, but the way the Owls have overcome his absence is another example of the depth they have and how this team in recent years has had another player fill a spot when the opportunity for an expanded role has presented itself.
The Owls have also had to go without big man Michael Eric for some of the season, although he has returned recently. The big man suffered a patella tendon injury to his right knee in late November, the same knee he fractured last season. He had been playing well before the injury, and while he’s still not all the way back, the Owls are 5-0 since he returned to action against Maryland.
“He gives us a presence down in the paint,” said Wyatt. “Without Mike, we were pretty good, so having Mike back should make us better.”
With Eric out, then limited since his return, Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson has been a key for this team. At times, he has been their only frontcourt player on the floor, Saturday included, but he has made it work at both ends of the floor. He and Anthony Lee have teamed with Eric to form a solid, unspectacular frontcourt that gets the job done for this team.
There are more riches on the perimeter than just the three starters, and that was also on display Saturday. Sophomore Aaron Brown has been a solid reserve, giving them good offense once he comes into the game. Brown, who scored 15 points on 6-7 shooting (3-4 from long range) off the bench in Saturday’s win, has started ten games in his career as well and looks to be one of the next Owls who first produces in a relatively limited role, then becomes a key player after waiting his turn.
Temple is looking more and more like a team that can make a run in the NCAA Tournament. They have proven themselves against the competition, entering the week with an RPI of 13 and a 3-0 record against teams in the top 50. More impressive is that of those three wins, only the win over Duke came in Philadelphia, and that was at the Wells Fargo Center instead of on campus. The Owls are 9-4 away from campus on the season after Saturday’s win, including a 7-3 record in true road games.
“We’re pleased to be where we are, yet know we have eight really tough games to go,” said Dunphy.
The Atlantic 10 has six teams bunched together within one game at the top of the standings after Saturday. Temple is on top and playing better than any of them right now, but Dunphy continues to reinforce that it’s a tough conference. With the way his perimeter trio is playing, they are in a good place to try to stay at or near the top the rest of the way.