PHILADELPHIA (AP) -Each of the last two seasons, Temple needed to win the Atlantic 10 tournament championship game to know it had earned a spot in the NCAA tournament.
The Owls aren't waiting until mid-March this year to show what they can do.
Ryan Brooks scored 22 points, Lavoy Allen had 16 and No. 16 Temple beat Xavier 77-72 on Wednesday night in a matchup of Atlantic 10 unbeatens.
The Owls (16-3, 4-0 Atlantic 10) have won five straight and 12 of 13, and are off to their best start since they also opened the 1993-94 season 16-3. Juan Fernandez scored 15 points and had seven assists for Temple, which knocked off the three-time defending league champions.
``This was a big win for us, a big opportunity to kind of go out there and gain first place in the league,' Brooks said. ``We kind of showed people what we're continuing to do along the season.'
At this rate, the Owls won't need to win the A-10 title game to secure a spot in the field of 65. The tournament is still two months away and plenty could happen - a key injury, overconfidence - that could derail this sensational season.
For now, the Owls are enjoying their time atop the standings.
``I don't think it's too early because it gives you that confidence, it gives you that edge,' Brooks said.
Brooks, Fernandez and Allen have all helped the Owls climb the national rankings and enjoy their best season in 16 years. But it's defense where Temple has carved an identity. The Owls ranked third nationally in defense (allowing 55.5 points per game) entering the game and held a Musketeers offense that scored in the 50s only once this season below that number until late.
The Musketeers got hot late in the final two minutes and made the Owls sweat out this victory.
Brad Redford hit two clutch 3-pointers - he was left open in the corner on the second one - that sliced the deficit to 71-68 with 23.4 seconds left.
Brooks, Temple's newly minted 1,000-point scorer, calmly made two free throws for a 73-70 lead. Brooks, who nearly fumbled away the ball before he was fouled on a press, hit two more and the Owls could finally relax in a game between the league's top teams.
``I want to be the one shooting the free throws at the end to give my team the 'W,'' Brooks said.
Jordan Crawford scored 18 points, Jason Love had 16 and Terrell Holloway 13 for Xavier (12-6, 4-1). The Musketeers snapped a four-game winning streak.
``I don't think there are going to be too many teams that are going to sneak in here and get one,' Xavier coach Chris Mack said.
Each time Temple seemed on the brink of building a comfortable lead, Xavier inched its way closer toward a comeback. Crawford finally put the Musketeers ahead for the first time since early in the first half on a 3-pointer that made it 48-47.
With Dante Jackson yelling ``Movement! Movement!' before an inbounds pass, the Musketeers listened, working the ball around and inside to Love - who was whistled for an offensive foul.
Fernandez came right down and drilled a wide-open 3 from the top of the arc, and Brooks' jumper over the outstretched arms of two defenders the next time down made it 52-48.
Mark Lyons again kept the Owls from stretching the lead to double digits after his 3 made it 58-53. Crawford's 3 pulled Xavier to 65-60.
The Musketeers never let Temple pull too far ahead, but they never got rolling on a serious enough run to keep their perfect conference mark.
The Owls were 13 for 19 from the floor in the second half and finished at 59 percent for their highest shooting percentage this season.
``We had something to do with that, not contesting as well as we needed to,' Mack said. ``We couldn't get the stops we needed to in order to win the game.'
The Owls made their first four 3-pointers and shot 53 percent in the first half to lead 39-34 at the break. Love, a Philadelphia native, went 5 for 5 for 11 points in the half to keep the Musketeers within striking distance.
Temple had used the 3-pointer with great success in big wins this season. This time, Brooks made smart drives to the basket and Fernandez hit mid-range jumpers to complement 5-for-10 shooting on 3s by the Owls.
``Xavier has been the best team in the league for a number of years now,' Temple coach Fran Dunphy said. ``It looks like they're going to be very good for a long period of time.'
The Owls want to be the best team in the league this year - and right now they are.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
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