DEKALB, Ill. - Was Temple almost caught looking ahead last night?
With a home clash with top-ranked Kansas looming this weekend, the Owls let an 18-point first-half lead dwindle to just two in the second half before reasserting themselves down the stretch to claim a 70-60 nonconference victory over Northern Illinois.
But Owls coach Fran Dunphy said it wasn't a lack of focus, but an energized Huskie team that nearly turned the tide.
"Northern Illinois was absolutely the best team on the court for the last 5 minutes of the first half . . . and even early on in the second half they did a better job than we did," he said. "It became a very difficult task for us to counter that, but that's when our toughness showed."
Holding a shaky 35-33 lead early in the second half, the Owls regained control and launched a 12-2 run that restored a double-digit lead at 47-35. Northern Illinois never got closer than nine points the rest of the way.
Guard Juan Fernandez scored a game-high 26 points - including 17 in the second half - to pace the No. 18 Owls to the road win before a sparse Convocation Center crowd.
Temple (11-2) has now won seven straight, 10 of its last 11, and opens the new year on Saturday hosting the Jayhawks.
With students away on holiday break and the campus shuttered, only 1,234 fans were on hand as the Huskies slipped to 2-8 and suffered their sixth loss in seven games.
Temple was the highest-ranked team to ever play at the 7-year-old Convocation Center and in the early stages liked what it saw. The Owls never trailed and sprinted to a double-digit lead at 16-5 just 6 minutes into the game on a Fernandez' three-pointer.
The nation's top-ranked defensive unit, the Owls limited the Huskies to just two first-half field goals on 2-for-19 shooting over the first 12 minutes. And Northern Illinois went through a span of more than 13 minutes without a successful shot from the field.
The Owls, meanwhile, built a 27-9 lead by the 8:23 mark, thanks in part to 4-for-7 three-point shooting - including three from Fernandez.
But Temple's scoring abruptly slackened in the final 8 minutes and the Huskies finally found their shooting touch as team scoring leader Xavier Silas hit three three-pointers in a span of 2:47 to cut the led to single digits at 31-22.
By halftime, a once commanding lead was trimmed to 31-24.
"I thought our guys played extremely hard once we realized we could play with the No. 18 team in the country," Northern Illinois coach Ricardo Patton said. "I thought that our guys did a nice job defensively, we played as hard as we could play and when we finally started making shots late in the first half it really helped us."
Joining Fernandez in double figures was guard Ryan Brooks with 19 points while forward Lavoy Allen had 11 rebounds. Silas led Northern Illinois with 26 points while Darion Anderson added 15.
Last night's road victory was Temple's fifth in six games and wrapped up a three-game December sweep of Mid-American Conference teams.
It also completed a perfect December as Temple recorded seven victories, including a memorable 75-65 win over then-No. 3 Villanova. The Owls' previous unbeaten December came in 1987.
Although this meeting was the first between the programs, Northern Illinois and Temple are no strangers. The Owls are MAC members for football and last met the Huskies in 2007 in Philadelphia - a 16-15 Temple triumph at Lincoln Financial Field.
Saturday's game with Kansas is set for 5:30 p.m. at the Liacouras Center and will be televised nationally on ESPN2.
"We've been looking forward to this one for a while, and [now] it's here," said Brooks. "We did what we wanted to do - take care of business these past two games. Good teams find a way to win on the road and I'm happy we came together, stayed together and didn't lose composure."