ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – Forget the NCAA Tournament.
It will be awfully difficult for the men’s basketball team to top the emotions that encompassed Boardwalk Hall Saturday night when Temple won the Atlantic Ten Conference Championship and punched its ticket to the Big Dance for the first time since 2001.
Making the Sweet Sixteen would be nice. Advancing to the Elite Eight would be unimaginable. But even those accolades would really just be like the mediocre hills at the end of a roller-coaster. The most fun part – what everyone remembers – is the big hill.
And what a hill it was.
The Owls entered the season appearing to be a non-factor in the A-10. And, for the first two and a half months of the season, they did nothing to change that sentiment.
Then, somewhere between the second half of their loss to Duke and upsetting Xavier one week later, something clicked. Somewhere, they found confidence within themselves.
Make that found confidence in each other.
“Somehow, someway, it’s just within teams,” coach Fran Dunphy said. “I think these kids just picked the defensive end up. They got a steal, they got a basket, they got another basket, and all of a sudden they said, ‘Well, maybe we can be pretty good.'”
That confidence sparked further accomplishments.
They got a win. They got another win. They beat a hated rival in an epic comeback. And eventually, they strung together straight four wins to secure the second seed in the conference tourney.
Suddenly, the Owls found themselves talking about making a run at the conference title. Three wins later and the Owls found themselves dancing on the Boardwalk Hall hardwood, hugging teammates, administrators and fans.
It was quite a scene.
Semaj Inge – he of the disastrous Puerto Rico Tip-Off Classic – found himself wearing one of the nets around his neck.
Sergio Olmos, the 7-foot-0 center always considered “a year away,” found himself leaping on the backs of teammates, trying to get into a celebratory photo. (Why such a tall man needed to heave himself above his teammates, who knows?)
Chris Clark, the 5-8 senior guard constantly questioned about his capabilities, finally found himself with a birds-eye view, clipping the final strands of the net as he stood above his teammates atop a wooden ladder.
“I don’t think just getting into the Tournament is something that we can be like, ‘Okay, we got into the Tournament, that’s cool,'” Clark said. “We want to win some games and make a mark.”
Winning a few Tournament games would be nice. But remember this, only one NCAA team gets to celebrate in the fashion the Owls did Saturday night. That’s the national champions – and no one is mistaking these Owls as a contender.
So, savor this elation, this glory, this pride.
Because it’s the six-year absence from the Big Dance that has led to it, eating at the hearts of this program and its fans. The beating that Saint Joseph’s has lashed on the Owls in recent years caused additional heartbreak.
The Owls ended both simultaneously Saturday. No matter what the Owls do in March Madness, that’s what the 2007-08 season was all about.
John Kopp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
(Photo by Kevin Cook.)
Also read: “Champions”