ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – After Mark Tyndale hauled in Tasheed Carr’s desperation three-point attempt with less than 30 seconds left, Chris Clark walked to midcourt, arm up, index finger raised.
The 5-foot-8 Temple senior took another few steps and then raised both his arms above his head, fists clenched.
It was a feeling that the Temple men’s basketball program hasn’t felt in seven years.
For the first time since 2001, the Owls are headed to the NCAA Tournament.
The second-seeded Owls beat their Big 5-nemesis, No. 5 Saint Joseph’s, 69-64, in the Atlantic Ten Conference Tournament Championship in front of 10,116 at Boardwalk Hall Saturday to earn an automatic bid into March Madness, which starts Wednesday.
“I don’t think it’s set in quite yet. Clark said. “Maybe tomorrow when we sit down for Selection Sunday, but it hasn’t set in quite yet.
“We worked hard all year, man. We had a lot of ups-and-downs. But, hey, it’s all worth it. It’s all worth it for this.”
The Owls (21-12) have won seven A-10 Championships, the most in the 33-year history of the 14-team conference.
Junior Dionte Christmas, who earned the A-10 Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award, led the Owls once again with 22 points, while Tyndale approached a triple-double with eight points, nine rebounds and seven assists.
Clark and fellow reserve, sophomore Ryan Brooks, both made clutch shots off the bench. Clark finished with 10 points while Brooks added 15, including eight straight points during a crucial second-half stretch when St. Joe’s cut the lead to four.
“Knowing that you have to step up for you team and knowing that they’re counting on you, it just makes you want to play that much harder,” said Brooks, who played 24 minutes.
“Ryan Brooks – he’s a clutch dude,” coach Fran Dunphy said.
It was Brooks who helped guide the Owls to victory in the rubber match between Temple and St. Joe’s (21-12) this season. The Hawks prevailed in the first contest by a single point on Pat Calathes’ game-winning three-pointer, while Mark Tyndale came up big in the final seconds to lead the Owls to a victory of the same margin in the second meeting.
This time, it wouldn’t be that close.
Trailing 32-25 at intermission, Temple stormed out of the gates in the second stanza after freshman Lavoy Allen started the closing half with a dunk. That began a 16-2 Temple run which put them ahead, 41-34, with 13 minutes, 17 seconds remaining. Soon after, Christmas nailed a three-pointer to give Temple its largest lead of the game at 48-39 with 11:04 left.
“We needed to play as good as a basketball game as we could to beat St. Joe’s today,” Dunphy said. “[In] the second half we played as good as we could play.”
Temple shot 60 percent from the field in the second half.
“Coach told us we’re getting the shots we want, we’re just going to start knocking them down eventually and that’s what we did in the second half,” Tyndale said. “I think Lavoy Allen’s dunk in the second half gave us a great spark.”
Allen and senior Sergio Olmos helped defend Hawks center Ahmad Nivens, who only scored one field goal in the second half after notching 12 points prior to intermission. Nivens scored a team-high 18 points while Calathes had an off-night from beyond the arch, shooting 2 of 10 from three-point range, to finish with 14 points.
“We did this together, we got to this game together and we weren’t good enough tonight together,” St. Joe’s coach Phil Martelli said.
In only his second season at the helm, Temple coach Fran Dunphy brought a group of players he inherited from long-time Owls John Chaney together as a collective unit.
Last year, the Owls finished 10th in the conference with a 6-10 A-10 record and a 12-18 mark overall.
“It’s a tremendous turnaround and I give our seniors as much credit as I possibly can,” Dunphy said referring to Tyndale and Clark. “[They] have been great leaders for this group in different ways.
“It’s just one of those teams that I think there’s a great chemistry to it. They like one another. It just kind of came together. I don’t think there’s any secret.”
Now, under Dunphy’s guidance, the Owls will return to familiar territory – the NCAA Tournament – a place they visited 17 times with Chaney.
“This,” Dunphy said, “is an unbelievable feeling for our kids.”
Tyndale and Christmas were named to the A-10 All-Championship Team … Temple is now 7-7 in A-10 Championship games with their last win coming in 2001. St Joe’s is now 2-3 all-time in the tournament finale … Temple leads the all-time series between the two teams, 82-64. Temple is 8-2 against St. Joe’s in A-10 Tournament play … Current New York Knicks point guard and former Temple Owl Mardy Collins was in attendance for the game. Collins finished his career with Temple in 2006 …
Tyson McCloud can be reached at email@example.com.
(Top photo by Kevin Cook. Left photo by Ron Davis.)