PHILADELPHIA, FEB. 10 -- They have played college basketball in this city for 90 years now, but never before tonight had one of the local teams taken the floor as the No. 1-ranked team in the nation. Tonight, Temple changed that.
The Owls' presence as the top team in both polls would have made this night special under any circumstances. But their scintillating, 98-86 victory over Villanova before a sellout crowd of 4,500 packed into every corner of McGonigle Hall was truly a memorable one.
"This has to be one of the first times in 32 years as a coach that I've walked away from a loss and not really felt badly about it," Villanova Coach Rollie Massimino said. "This was a national championship type game. My kids really played well. Temple was just unbelievable."
Villanova (16-7) would have beaten most teams tonight. The Wildcats shot well, defended well and got a superb 27-point performance from Doug West and an almost-as-good 25 points and nine assists from point guard Kenny Wilson. But the Owls (19-1), after trailing by as many as six points in the second half, found the answers -- many of them in the form of freshman Mark Macon's 31-point performance -- and proved that, in addition to being the top team in the nation, they are the best in this city.
Tonight, that was saying a lot.
"I never felt as if I had any handle on that game," Temple Coach John Chaney said. "It was all the kids, on both sides. I think a game played at this level after all this hype shows the character on both teams. It was something."
So was the hype. Today's Philadelphia Daily News bannered its front page with a headline that read: "Temple-Villanova: The Showdown." Every TV station was here live before the game and Chaney said the attention the last two days got so bad that, "My wife crawled under the covers and refused to come out. I think she may still be there wondering who won."
The question of who would win was very much in doubt for a long time this evening. The Wildcats screamed out of the gate, even in the face of the roof-raising crowd, racing to an 8-0 lead. Temple came right back to lead, 14-13, and the teams went from there, the lead changing 19 times until a Macon jumper put Temple up, 41-40, at intermission.
"I really don't believe they can play any better than this," Massimino told his team at halftime.
He was mistaken. Villanova came out white-hot again after the break and a three-point play by Wilson on a seemingly impossible scoop shot from the lane put the Wildcats up, 53-47, with 15:51 left. This was the test for Temple. It had been No. 1 for 48 hours and now it's most intense rival was beating on the door, trying to make the Owls stay at the top of the polls a brief one.
"We knew coming in that being No. 1 wasn't our main concern," said point guard Howard Evans, who handed out a school-record 20 assists. "We knew our concern was Villanova. We knew they would be up to play us and we knew they would be tough. We just didn't know how tough."
The Owls found out how tough the Wildcats were and in doing so learned something about their own toughness. Down by six, Mike Vreezwyk (19 points) hit a three-pointer with Villanova's Rodney Taylor in his face. A moment later, he hit a carbon copy of that shot.
But the Wildcats were clawing away and they still led, 65-61, with 10:40 to play on a jumper by Tom Greis (16 points) when Macon took over. The sleek freshman guard has been criticized lately for poor shot selection and a low percentage (45 percentage) from the field. Tonight, he was brilliant.
He hit 14 of 20 shots from the field, never took a bad shot and, with the game in doubt, he was a force. His three-pointer from the top of the key put the Owls up by 66-65 with 9:40 left.
Vreeswyk hit another three, then Macon penetrated and hit a short shot to make it 71-67. A moment later, after Ramon Rivas had missed a free throw, Macon sneaked down the baseline, grabbed the rebound and put the follow back for a 76-69 lead. Villanova didn't quit after that, but it never got closer than four.
"Mark is a great talent, but he's still learning," Chaney said. "He played very well tonight but the key for us was Howie Evans. He controlled the game the way we wanted it controlled."
Evans' 20 assists -- two shy of the national record -- were all the more remarkable because he committed only one turnover. What was truly amazing, however, was that Evans' turnover was the only one Temple committed during the entire second half of a run-and-gun game.
"I thought it was just a great night for basketball in Philadelphia," Massimino said. "My kids deserve a lot of credit. They just got beaten by a great team playing unbelievable basketball."
Chaney didn't disagree. Usually, he finds dozens of things to critique in his team's performance. He did try to snap at Evans about his turnover, but it didn't work. His huge grin betrayed him.
"I've been a ground hog ever since we were ranked No. 1," he said. "I've been hiding out. Now, I guess we'll stay there a little while longer and I'll have to go back underground."
If his team continues to play like this, Chaney won't be able to hide for long. Temple 98, Villanova 86 VILLANOVA (86)
Plansky 3-10 0-0 8, Taylor 3-7 4-4 10, Rice 8-12 0-1 16, Wilson 8-11 8-9 25, West 8-15 4-4 27, Massey 0-3 0-0 0, Bekkedam 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 30-58 16-18 86. TEMPLE (98)
Vreeswyk 6-10 2-2 19, Perry 6-15 2-2 14, Rivas 3-8 5-7 11, Macon 14-20 1-3 31, Evans 3-6 9-10 17, Causwell 3-4 0-0 6. Totals 35-63 19-24 98.
Halftime -- Temple, 41-40.
Three-point goals -- Villanova 10-22 (West 7-13, Plansky 2-6, Wilson 1-3) Temple 9-13 (Vreeswyk 5-7, Macon 2-2, Evans 2-4). Fouled out -- Taylor. Rebounds -- Villanova 28 (Taylor 8), Temple 32 (Rivas 7). Assists -- Villanova 18 (Plansky, Wilson 9), Temple 23 (Evans 20). Total fouls -- Villanova 20, Temple 15.
A -- 4,500.