During Fran Dunphy’s first season coaching the men’s basketball team, he often respond to questions about Sergio Olmos by saying the center was a year away from becoming a consistent, interior presence.
Olmos’s performance yesterday against Tennessee – 19 points, seven rebounds and five blocks in 39 minutes – seemed like it might have surpassed Dunphy’s expectations.
But the Owls’ coach said otherwise.
“It doesn’t surprise me, because he’s worked hard,” Dunphy said.
It must be noted that much of the credit for Temple’s shockingly dominant, 88-72, win against No. 8 Tennessee at the Liacouras Center goes to Dionte Christmas and his spectacular shooting performance that yielded 35 points.
Equally important, however, were the performances turned in by the players around Christmas – particularly Olmos and Ryan Brooks – and the defense that held the high-octane Volunteers to a season-low 72 points.
Those are the major differences between this season’s Owls, and the untested version that walked into Tennessee’s Thompson-Boling Arena starry-eyed last year and was promptly pummeled, 80-63, in its season opener.
Such improvements were certainly not lost on Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl.
“The fact that they can win at Penn State when Dionte doesn’t score until 5 minutes to go in the game, it give the rest of the guys confidence that they can play,” Pearl said.
That confidence level certainly didn’t exist at this time last year, when the Owls were struggling to find the right combinations.
Olmos wasn’t much of a factor. Brooks had yet to enter his own. Lavoy Allen showed brief spurts of his talent, but was still adjusting to the college level. The Owls relied too heavily on their top guns, Mark Tyndale and Christmas.
Against the Vols, Dunphy gave eight different players at 15 minutes, unsuccessfully trying to find a combination that would pull Temple back. Yesterday, only six players recorded 15 minutes.
The Owls will you their confidence didn’t come until the second half of a loss to Duke last year. Temple then won 15 of its final 20 contests en route to the Atlantic Ten Conference Championship.
Yesterday’s game offered a good barometer on the Owls’ improvements.
“Everything just came together,” Dunphy said.
Ryan Brooks totaled 16 points and 10 rebounds, his biggest play a clutch 3-pointer that snapped a 13-0 Tennessee run midway through the first period.
Semaj Inge, who saw his minutes become almost extinct last season, quietly played a solid game, dishing out four assists, blocking two shots and scoring five points.
Point guard Luis Guzman reeled in six boards and also notched three assists.
Olmos drew rave reviews about his defense from both Dunphy and Pearl.
“Olmos played a great game back there; was a factor at the basket,” Pearl said. “His length is a factor around the basket.”
But these players’ biggest contribution was their collective effort in the first half, in which they held the Vols to a 27.3 shooting percentage. The Owls shot 51.9 percent during that half, but Christmas, with five points, was mostly silent.
But for the Owls to pull off the upset, they needed Christmas to end his shooting funk. Heading into halftime, the senior guard had totaled just 18 points in the teams’ last five periods.
“When you play the best games on your schedule, your best players have got to step up, because everybody’s challenged,” Pearl said.
Step up he did.
Christmas scored 30 points in the second half. His most incredible stretch – three treys in four possessions – put the game permanently out of reach. That left the Liacouras Center roaring and had to have left a lasting impression on the 19 NBA scouts in attendance.
“When you hot, you hot,” Christmas said.
After wins against Penn State and Tennessee, the Owls are hot. With games against Kansas, Long Beach State and Villanova on the horizon, they’ll need both Christmas and his comrades to stay that way.
John Kopp can be reached at email@example.com.