It was just like old times at the Palestra.
A packed, rollicking arena, split evenly between La Salle yellow and Temple cherry.
A national TV audience, thanks to the presence of ESPN’s College Gameday.
And best of all, a thrilling game.
The Explorers (11-6) and Owls (5-11) traded punches all afternoon, and a string of late free throws from seniors Tyreek Duren and Tyrone Garland was just barely enough to hold off one last Temple charge, as La Salle triumphed, 74-68.
The Explorers were seemingly safe after building a 62-51 second half-lead, but the Owls clawed back slowly but surely, using stellar performances from Anthony Lee Quenton DeCosey to cut the deficit down to 70-68 with just under 39 seconds remaining.
But after a tipped inbounds pass in the backcourt nearly resulted in a steal, the Explorers were able to drain clock and work the ball to Duren, who had one thing on his mind as he stepped to the line.
“Make these free throws,” he said. “And get out of here.”
He did just that, calmly nailing both as over a thousand La Salle students in front of him erupted.
Garland then iced it with a pair of his own after Owls guard Dalton Pepper turned it over on the ensuing possession.
Both teams fed off the energy of the afternoon, which seemed to give each successive run a greater sense of momentum behind it.
“What an atmosphere,” La Salle coach Dr. John Giannini said. “I don’t know why we wouldn’t want to play here, it’s just an awesome experience.”
Temple’s younger, more inexperienced players were seemingly unfazed by the packed house. DeCosey, only a sophomore, led all scorers with 21 points on 8-18 shooting, finding a way to push past La Salle defenders and penetrate, no matter who Giannini put on him.
But the Owls simply couldn’t put it together when it mattered most. Temple committed a huge mental error on the game’s pivotal possession, failing to foul Explorers center Steve Zack before Duren — a 76% free throw shooter before the game — could get his hands on the ball.
“We were trying to get anybody other than Duren because of his poise and confidence level,” Temple coach Fran Dunphy said. “I thought we had Zack two different times, but apparently not.”
For a while, it seemed as if La Salle was going to overwhelm Temple, who played only seven men, because of its sheer depth and range of scorers. Four separate explorers scored in double figures, including Garland (17 points) and Duren (20).
The veteran Explorers’ early tightness, countered by swagger and poise in pivotal moments evoked images of their Sweet Sixteen run last year, a comparison that was not lost on Giannini.
“This was like our NCAA Tournament last year,” he said. “They know it’s big. They know it’s big… I did what I could to try and keep them calmer.”
It was a big start to a bigger doubleheader for the Big 5, a tradition that has waned in recent years as Temple, Saint Joseph’s, Villanova and La Salle play more and more games at home in their on-campus arenas.
But for at least one afternoon, the days of yore were new again.
“I honestly don’t know if our kids have ever been involved in it,” Dunphy said. “But when we got here today, the craziness was there.”