ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – In the chaotic scene that followed the Owls’ 69-64 victory over Saint Joseph’s in the Atlantic Ten Conference Championship game Saturday, Mark Tyndale could be found milling about the crowd, hugging teammates, friends and family members.
In his socks.
Tyndale’s white Adidas sneakers vanished and the court at the historic Boardwalk Hall became his own personal dance floor after the men’s basketball team won its seventh A-10 Championship in program history, the most of the 14-teams in the league.
The 6-foot-5 senior and the rest of the Owls still have more dancing to do.
And they’ll do it in Denver.
By beating St. Joe’s to win the A-10 title last Saturday, the Owls secured their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2001. They will head to the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colo. as a No. 12 seed in the South region to play No. 5 Michigan State in the first round of the 65-team tournament Thursday at 12:30 p.m.
The winner will face either No. 4 Pittsburgh or No. 13 Oral Roberts in the second round.
Let the Madness begin.
“I couldn’t ask for a better feeling then this,” Tyndale said. “I’m just so happy for my team, for the program, for all of the alumni and all of the fans.”
The match-up is a familiar – if not ironic – one for the Owls (21-12 overall).
Seven years ago in their final Tournament appearance before this season, the No. 11-seeded Owls advanced all the way to the Elite Eight before they were knocked out by top-seeded Michigan State.
Tyndale, a Simon Gratz High School grauadate and self-proclaimed life-long Temple basketball fan, and fellow senior Chris Clark, a St. Joseph’s Preparatory School graduate, were both 15 years old at the time.
“We were just talking about it – the history,” Clark said after the Owls discovered who they would play during a Selection Sunday viewing at the Draught Horse on Cecil B. Moore Ave.
“It’s fate. We’re looking forward to going out there and playing those guys.”
Temple hasn’t played Michigan State since the Spartans ejected them from the Big Dance in 2001.
This season, Michigan State (25-8) was paced by team-scoring and rebounding leader, sophomore Raymar Morgan, and three-point shooting threat, Drew Neitzel. The Spartans lost to the eventual Big Ten Conference champion Wisconsin Badgers in the conference semifinals last week.
In his 13th season with Michigan State, coach Tom Izzo has guided the Spartans to 11 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, including four trips to the Final Four and an NCAA Championship in 2000. He and Temple coach Fran Dunphy are both members of the USA Basketball Men’s Collegiate Committee.
“I have tremendous respect for him and what he’s done over the years,” said Dunphy, who lost his only meeting against Izzo’s Spartans when was still coaching at Penn.
What Dunphy’s done over his two-year tenure at Temple is direct the Owls back to the Big Dance.
Before he arrived on North Broad Street, the 59-year-old coach led Penn to nine NCAA Tournament appearances, the last coming in 2006.
Under Dunphy’s watch, the Owls made improved from a 6-10 conference record to an 11-5 mark in the A-10, good enough for second place in the competitive league’s standings.
“The team concept became something that they believed in,” Dunphy said about the difference between last year’s team and this year’s squad.
Dunphy said he started to see a change in his players during the second half of Temple’s loss to Duke in January when the Owls shaved a 19-point second half deficit down to eight against the then-No. 7 team in the nation.
Since that game, the Owls have defeated 15 of their next 20 opponents and are currently on a season-high seven game winning streak.
It all came full circle in the end for the Owls as they beat No. 5 St. Joe’s, the team that knocked them out of the A-10 Tournament in the first round last season, for the A-10 title. The storied Big-5 rivals split a pair of intense one-point games in the regular season, but the Owls prevailed in the rubber match.
“Temple versus St. Joe’s is a big rivalry, but to be honest though, we could’ve beat Xavier in the championship. It all feels the same,” said junior Dionte Christmas, who was voted the A-10 Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after scoring a team-high 22 points in the title game. “Winning the championship is great. I don’t have any words to describe how I feel right now.”
Temple fans chose to let their actions speak for them as they overflowed onto the court after the final buzzer. It took multiple announcements from the public address announcer to get fans to clear the court for the trophy presentation.
After seven years of waiting, the players and fans tried to squeeze as much out of the moment as they could.
“When the clock hit zero, I saw the fans rushing to the court and everybody throwing their hands up,” sophomore Ryan Brooks said. “We had been saying ‘A-10 champs’ in our huddles since the beginning of the year and to get that, it’s great.”
The Owls are 31-25 all-time in NCAA Tournament play … Tyndale and Christmas were named to the Atlantic 10 All-Championship Team along with St. Joe’s Pat Calathes and Ahmad Nivens and Charlotte’s Leemire Goldwire …The Owls won their previous A-10 Championships in 1985, 1987, 1988, 1990, 2000 and 2001.
Tyson McCloud can be reached at Tyson@temple.edu.