For Dionte Christmas, Semaj Inge and Sergio Olmos, the emotions will be heavy Thursday night as the three senior captains are introduced to the Liacouras Center crowd one final time.
After playing a combined 144 games in the building, suiting up for two legendary Big 5 coaches and leading the men’s basketball team back to the NCAA Tournament last season, how could emotions not run high?
“This is not going to happen to me again,” the center Olmos said. “I’m not going to be in college. I’m going to do whatever I do after college. I can’t explain this sense of it being over.”
Christmas had an easier time putting his emotions into words.
“They’re like my brothers,” the guard said of his teammates. “Leaving after the season is hard. It’s going to be an emotional night for me.”
Dunphy has said in previous seasons that senior night creates an unnecessary pressure to perform. Thursday’s game already carries its share of pressure.
Therein lies the trap and the major reason coach Fran Dunphy hates senior night.
The Owls dealt themselves a serious blow to their at-large chances last week when La Salle outplayed them at the Liacouras Center. Temple then lost to Dayton Saturday, a defeat it might have been able to stomach had the Owls properly disposed of the underdog Explorers.
With their grasp on one of the four byes in the Atlantic Ten Conference Tournament slipping, the Owls desperately need to right the ship against an even more desperate Saint Joseph’s team.
With two games remaining, the Owls (17-11 overall) sit in fourth place in the A-10 with a 9-5 conference mark, one game ahead of Duquesne, St. Joe’s and Saint Louis, which each own an 8-6 A-10 record.
“I think this last stretch with the situation we’re in, we have to pay attention to every little detail and every game we come across,” Christmas said. “We’ve got to go out and play every game like it’s our last.”
For one, this is their last home game (unless they draw a home matchup in the National Invitational Tournament, which leaves them shy of their NCAA hopes).
“The last game, you want to have a good memory,” Olmos said. “Beating St. Joe’s would be a good memory to have there.”
The Owls turned the table on their rival recently, beating the Hawks three straight times. But they haven’t won at home since Valentine’s Day 2006 when the seniors were freshmen. Christmas was the only one to appear in that game – a sparse four minutes, at that.
In last season’s meeting here, the Owls appeared to be headed for a victory but let a seven-point, halftime lead wilt away. Ultimately, Pat Calathes drilled a wide-open 3-pointer to win the game.
“That wasn’t a good memory, but it had to be one of my most memorable,” Inge admitted.
The Owls haven’t lost to St. Joe’s since, a proud accomplishment for this team, which had previously dropped 12 of 13 meetings.
But the seniors have each had their own personal obstacles to clear, particularly Inge and Olmos.
Inge often appeared overwhelmed during his freshman season, failing to register his first collegiate point until the Owls’ last regular-season game. That pursuit became somewhat of a spectacle for his teammates.
During one late-season game in which Temple was significantly ahead, the Owls’ bench anxiously cheered Inge as he toed the free-throw line. He missed them both.
Inge has also battled inconsistency, including last season when he mostly watched Temple’s A-10 run from the bench. This season, however, his production has been the best of his career, as he’s averaging 7.2 points and 3.5 assists in 28 minutes per game.
“I had a lot of obstacles to overcome,” Inge said. “But I think the main obstacle was being confident on the court and knowing my teammates have confidence in me and the coaching staff has confidence in me.”
Olmos has certainly had his share of hurdles, too. The Spaniard had to learn English and adapt to the more physical American game. He’s also lost his starter’s spot – twice. The first time came as a sophomore.
“I took it the wrong way and got down on myself,” Olmos said. “It was hard. I was thinking about going home. I was homesick. It was tough.”
But Olmos learned from the experience and was better prepared when he briefly lost it again this season.
“This is going to happen in basketball,” Olmos said. “It’s going to happen, just keep your head up.”
Christmas’s struggles have been less dramatic, but his biggest obstacle just might be ahead. Last season, he was an accomplice to seniors Chris Clark and Mark Tyndale as the Owls advanced to the NCAA Tournament. If the Owls are to make a similar run to the NCAAs, they’ll need him to be the backbone.
But, Christmas said, he’s only taking it one game at a time. And next on the docket is Temple’s last home game against the hated Hawks.
“You can’t paint the picture better,” Christmas said.
John Kopp can be reached at email@example.com.