ATLANTIC CITY, N.J.—Players hugged.
The men’s basketball team won its second straight Atlantic Ten Conference Championship last weekend at Boardwalk Hall. The fourth-seeded Owls downed seventh-seeded Duquesne, 69-65, Saturday night to capture the title. Senior guard Dionte Christmas hit for 29 points and was named the championship’s Most Outstanding Performer for the second year in a row.
The Owls advance to the NCAA Tournament as an 11 seed. They’ll face sixth-seeded Arizona State in the first round Friday afternoon in Miami.
The win over the Dukes set off another joyous scene on the court, as the celebration was on with the Owls headed to NCAA Tournament for the 28th time in school history. The victory also went as the Owls’ eighth A-10 Tournament title, and they became the first repeat champions since the 2000 and 2001 squads of legendary coach John Chaney.
Overall, it was a pretty successful weekend for Temple (22-11).
“It’s a privilege to represent our league in the NCAA Tournament,” coach Fran Dunphy said. “We feel very fortunate to have come to Atlantic City and won three games. It’s a great feeling for us. We’re honored.”
Taking home the title made the players feel the same way.
“[The championship] shows not only a lot about the team but just the program in general,” Christmas said. “I’m definitely happy that we got a chance to get back to the Tournament this year.”
“I can’t describe the feeling,” senior center Sergio Olmos added. “This is amazing, an amazing feeling. I couldn’t ask for anything [else]. I just feel great.”
After gaining a first-round bye with a 12-4 conference record, the Owls beat fifth-seeded and archrival Saint Joseph’s in the quarterfinal, 79-65, Thursday afternoon. The next night, the Owls took down top seed and then-No. 19 Xavier, 55-53.
Due to the wins, the Owls had two players join Christmas on the All-Championship team in Olmos and junior guard Ryan Brooks. But, despite their contributions and the contributions of the other four players in the Owls’ rotation, the A-10 Tournament was very much the Christmas show.
Well, not to start.
The Owls’ co-captain struggled against St. Joe’s, hitting for just seven points while shooting an uncharacteristic 1-of-10 from the field. His first half against Xavier wasn’t a whole lot better, but late in the second half, with the game on the line, Christmas finally broke out of his shooting slump.
He hit not one, but two clutch 3-pointers to keep the Musketeers at bay. The first came with 1:50 to go and put the Owls up by four points. The second gave the Owls a five-point lead with 1:09 remaining.
Christmas even hit the game-icing free throw, which gave Temple a four-point cushion with just seven seconds left on the clock. He finished with 20 points in the contest.
“It was in my mind that my team needed a basket right now, and I’m a senior, I’m the leader of this team, I need to make this basket,” Christmas said. “Once I took one more dribble and [Xavier senior guard B.J. Raymond] backed up a little bit more, [the ball] was going up.”
There was no doubt in Dunphy’s mind, in Christmas’ mind, in anyone in the building’s mind, who was taking those shots for the Owls.
Christmas sinking the two treys certainly left his coach impressed.
“You need your best players to step up, and I thought Dionte did that late in the game,” Dunphy said.
That performance carried over into the first half of the A-10 final, as Christmas hit six 3-pointers before halftime. He finished 7-of-16 from beyond the arc, which was enough to tie an A-10 finals record and help the Owls tie an A-10 finals record with 11 treys.
Christmas even hit for 14 of Temple’s final 18 points of the first half, as he was simply on fire and rocked the largely Temple-supported Boardwalk Hall each time one of his 3-pointers found the bottom of the net.
“I thought every shot I shot today was going in,” Christmas said.
“He was spectacular in the first half,” Dunphy added. “It looked like everything was going to go in the basket that he shot.”
Christmas’ heroics helped the Owls reach the Tournament, and performing well there remained the Owls’ collecrtive goal.
“Let’s [get] this win behind us, get to the Tournament and have a respectable performance there,” senior guard Semaj Inge said. “I don’t want to go down there, fight hard and lose again. I want to win.”
Todd Orodenker can be reached at email@example.com.