ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Juan Fernandez has no doubt why No. 17 Temple is on the verge of a third straight Atlantic 10 Conference tournament title.
"Our defense is what is keeping us winning these games," the sophomore guard said after the top-seeded Owls held Rhode Island to its lowest point total in five years for a 57-44 victory in Saturday's semifinal.
It's what you would expect from the nation's fourth-best defense. The Owls (28-5) held the Runnin' Rams to 17 first-half points and 27 percent shooting from the field for the game.
"They are a very good team," Rhode Island forward Delroy James said of Temple's defense. "They play 5 on 5, five guys."
Temple will play third-seeded Richmond, which beat Xavier (No. 24 AP) in overtime 89-85, Sunday afternoon for the league's automatic berth in the NCAA tournament, although all three are likely to get bids.
"If we play this kind of basketball, it's up to us if we want to win tomorrow," Fernandez said after the Owls won their ninth straight game and beat the fifth-seeded Rams for the third time this season.
As it has most of the season, Temple had different players carry the load on offense. Ryan Brooks led the way Saturday with 16 points and Fernandez once again ignited the Owls, scoring the first seven points and nine of his 14 in a game-opening 15-2 run.
The spurt took the air out of Rhode Island (23-9) and left it in a precarious position for the NCAA tournament heading into Selection Sunday.
"You have to play very, very solid and very well and you have to make shots," Rhode Island coach Jim Baron said. "We fell short of making shots early and that put us in a hole. When you play a team like this, you have to bring your 'A' game and we fell short of that."
The last time Rhode Island scored fewer points was in a 67-41 loss at Houston on Dec. 27, 2005. The Rams' previous low this season also came against Temple, in a 78-56 loss Feb. 13.
"We contested shots without fouling too much," Temple coach Fran Dunphy said. "I'm pleased with where we are defensively. We're covering for one another, which is a critical piece to playing good defense."
Temple has held 10 opponents to less than 50 points and is 9-1 in those games.
Keith Cothran had 11 points to lead the Rams, who have now lost 19 straight games to ranked opponents.
The Owls are looking to become the conference's first team to win three consecutive titles since Massachusetts won five in a row from 1992 to 1996.
Not even Mother Nature could help the Rams, who came into the game averaging 77.1 points, on a horrible day in which heavy rain and strong winds kept most people inside in this oceanside casino resort.
The driving rain got into some air handlers on the roof of Boardwalk Hall and a drip started falling near half court with 13:49 left in the first half and the Owls ahead 11-2.
Play was suspended for seven minutes while the problem was resolved.
The delay didn't slow Temple or change Rhode Island's play.
When the game resumed Lavoy Allen hit two free throws and scored a layup on the next possession to push the lead to 15-2.
Rhode Island never got closer than six points the rest of the way, with the Owls breaking the game open late in the first half with a 10-2 run that gave it a 34-17 lead. Brooks hit two jumpers to end the spurt.
"Every team is going to give us their best effort," Brooks said. "We have to match their intensity at the start of games. These last two games we've done a good job of coming out with high energy, making the right decisions, getting stops and putting ourselves in pretty good situations early in the games."
Temple led by as many as 23 points in the second half before slowing things down. The Owls are the first top seed to reach the conference tournament final since Saint Joseph's in 2005. No top seed has won the tournament since Xavier in 2002.
Cothran, the Rams' leading scorer with a 14.7-point average, was 4 of 13 from the field, and Lamonte Ulmer finished with five points, seven below his average.
Fernandez, who had a hand in 16 of the 24 points in a game-opening 24-8 run against St. Bonaventure on Friday, was the catalyst again. The Argentine hit a 3-pointer and two floaters in the lane to stake the Owls to a 7-0 lead. After setting up a layup by Micheal Eric, he drove the left side of the lane for another basket.
"It was a real good win for us," Dunphy said. "I thought we played as good of basketball as we can play, for the most part, in the first half and did what we had to do in the second half."