March 22, 2021
Thirty-three years ago, John Chaney's Temple Owls were at the center of the college basketball universe. The 18-1 Owls were named the No. 1 team in the country on Feb. 8, 1988 becoming the first Big 5 team since the 1954-55 La Salle Explorers to earn the honor. The timing was impeccable as the Owls were set to take on their nationally ranked neighbors from the Main Line in what was billed as the most highly anticipated Big 5 matchup of the decade.
An overflow crowd of over 4,500 packed McGonigle Hall for the Owls’ only matchup of the season against Villanova. Rollie Massimino’s Wildcats had the upper hand early with an 8-0 run, but Temple’s prolific offensive prevailed in the end. Temple sealed the game late, outscoring the Wildcats 7-2 in the final three minutes and burying 14-consecutive free throws.
Owls freshman guard Mark Macon, who went on to become Temple’s all-time leading scorer, had a career-high 31 points. Teammate Howie Evans finished with 20 assists, two shy of the NCAA’s single-game record.
The Wildcats did all they could to match their Big 5 counterparts. They shot 51.7 percent from the floor. Point guard Kenny Wilson finished with 25 points, but they didn’t have much left to match Temple’s late onslaught.
More than a quarter of the century later, the game still holds up as one of the greatest 40 minutes of Big 5 basketball. Paradoxically, the two teams managed to play tight defense while giving up a combined 184 points. Both Massimino and Chaney cooked up a variety of defensive schemes but in the end, nine players combined to reach double figures in points. The intensity of the rivalry was amplified by the national spotlight and the players rose to the occasion.
"I thought it was one of the best basketball games played in this city in a lot of years, a lot of years," Massimino told the Inquirer after the game. "You can go back to whenever and you won’t find a basketball game played the way this one was."
Chaney, who couldn’t care less about what the polls said about his team, recognized that what transpired was worthy enough to be remembered by Philadelphia basketball fans for generations.
"Rollie and I could have stood on Broad Street and ate peanuts; this was a game for the players," Chaney said. "I don’t think I ever had control of it. It was nothing I orchestrated. The players played themselves into a win."
The Owls' performance that night secured their #1 ranking for at least another day. Chaney’s team would remain at the top for the remainder of the season, winning the next 13 games before falling to Duke in the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament.
You can vote for the 1988 Temple Owls men's basketball team in the first round of our Philly's Greatest Teams bracket.