DeKALB, Ill - In one of the biggest weeks in the history of Temple athletics, Wednesday's trip to Northern Illinois was likely an afterthought for Owls fans.
The No. 18 Owls made it look that way early as they built an 18-point first-half lead before holding off a series of spirited rallies for their seventh straight victory, 70-60.
Temple (11-2) heads into Saturday's showdown with No. 1 Kansas after two wins this week to complete its first unbeaten December since going 7-0 in 1987.
The basketball excitement comes on the heels of Temple's football team battling UCLA in the EagleBank Bowl and falling, 30-21, on Tuesday,
Now, Temple's full attention shifts to basketball.
"This last one in particular we've been looking forward to for a while now and it's here," said Temple guard Ryan Brooks about the upcoming Kansas game.
The victory over Northern Illinois didn't come easy, however. The Owls had already beaten four Mid-American Conference foes, and a fifth such victory looked assured after Ramone Moore's 3-pointer opened up a 27-9 Temple advantage with 8:26 left before halftime.
But Temple made only four of 17 shots to close the half and Northern Illinois used a trio of three-pointers from Xavier Silas in a 15-4 run to cut the lead to 31-24 at halftime.
"I think that the start was big," Brooks said. "We came out ready to play and unfortunately we got a little complacent, which we can't do."
Northern Illinois (2-8) continued its surge after the break, pulling within two points on two occasions. The lead was 35-33 with 14 minutes left when Juan Fernandez nailed a three-pointer and Brooks converted a three-point play on the fast break to give the Owls some much-needed breathing room.
"I thought that's where I thought our toughness showed," Owls coach Fran Dunphy said. "Fernandez made a three and we made a couple of really good plays to push the lead back out."
Fernandez led the way with 17 of his 26 points after halftime and Brooks added 19.
Temple withstood one final surge by Northern Illinois, which pulled within 52-43 with 5:56 left. Brooks and Luis Guzman answered with jumpers that triggered a 10-1 spurt that made it 62-44 with under three minutes to go.