Phil Sheridan: Big Five keeps producing great memories

La Salle coach John Giannini makes a suggestion to an official.
La Salle coach John Giannini makes a suggestion to an official. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 19, 2012

It is one of the ways we mark time in this city. Not the minutes or tenths of a second on the scoreboard clock, but years and decades and generations.

Nothing gets you thinking this way like a City Six basketball game, especially one as promising as Wednesday's matchup between La Salle and Temple in the Liacouras Center. It's impossible to drive to this arena, or the Pavilion, or Hawk Hill or especially the Palestra without the memories drifting in.

When I was first covering Big Five games, the older reporters would talk about the doubleheaders and the rollouts and the streamers. About players like Guy Rodgers and Ken Durrett and Howard Porter. About Jim Boyle the player, not the lanky coach of St. Joe's. It half felt like the golden era was long gone and half like maybe the older guys were romanticizing their own younger days.

After all, the games I covered featured Mark Macon and Eddie Jones, Tim Legler and Lionel Simmons, Malik Rose and Jerome Allen and Rap Curry. There was an awful lot of incredible basketball played in the late 1980s and early '90s.

Watching Ramone Moore and Juan Fernandez, Tyreek Duren and Earl Pettis, it hit me. To the Temple students unrolling signs behind one basket, to the fresh-faced young reporters from the school papers and Web sites and radio stations, to the two sections of La Salle fans in the upper level - my own memories were the ancient history. To them, this was and always will be the Big Five.

No matter the era, three things remain true about the baskets: They are the same height, they are the same circumference, and they get smaller in the final minutes of a close game.

The great ones, from (Hal) Lear to Jameer (Nelson) to Rahlir (Hollis-Jefferson), find a way to get the ball into that suddenly smaller hoop. It was true in the '50s and '60s. It is true a half-century later.

On this night, that eternal truth gave Temple a six-point win in a tight, hard-fought, classic Big Five matchup (even if it wasn't technically a Big Five game; that comes at La Salle next month).

The question coming into this was whether La Salle was for real, was finally playing at a level worthy of its storied history. The Explorers answered that question, resoundingly, in the affirmative. Coach John Giannini's team kept pace with Fran Dunphy's Owls the whole way. When Temple opened a 10-point lead and you thought La Salle would fade away, the Explorers clawed back to within one.

Again and again, they got within one. And that's where the basket shrunk and the ball felt slick in palms suddenly gone sweaty. It is where the more battle-tested Temple team could find ways to score, and the still-growing La Salle team could not.

"They made shots falling down and fading away," Giannini said. "They're just a little better. It's my job to bridge that gap."

There was Fernandez, drawing a foul with 2 minutes, 5 seconds to play and coolly hitting both free throws for a 70-67 lead. There was Khalif Wyatt, shot clock running out, leaning in to draw another foul with 1:22 left. He also made both shots, increasing the lead to 72-67.

"The more experience you get, the better you are in situations like this," said Moore. The Temple senior scored 17 points, but it was the shot he didn't take that drove the final stake through La Salle's enormous heart.

Three-point game. Moore has the ball at the top of the key. Everyone on the floor knows he is Temple's leader. So when he goes to his left, a couple of defenders go with him. That leaves Hollis-Jefferson, a junior from Chester, alone for a moment. Moore sees him, trusts him.

Hollis-Jefferson's 15-foot jumper finds that tiny net, and that is it.

For Temple, it was another good win. Not quite as season-making as its upset of Duke early this month, but much needed for a team that had been a little up-and-down since then. The Owls are 12-5 and undoubtedly the best team in the city right now.

La Salle is good enough, at 13-6, to derive little consolation to be taken from a tough loss.

"That means nothing," Giannini said.

Those four second-half possessions, when La Salle had the ball and a chance to take the lead?

"We just didn't get the shots we wanted on those," Giannini said. "I don't want to get in their heads [about clutch moments]. We just didn't get the shots we wanted."

Those are the shots, with time and the hoop tightening, that made the difference in this game. They are the shots that have made the difference since the days of Mlkvy and McAteer, in a city that has seen a million fall, and a million more miss.


Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844, psheridan@phillynews.com, or @Sheridanscribe on Twitter. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at http://go.philly.com/philabuster. Read his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan

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