Fran Dunphy perhaps never enjoyed a loss this much.
Temple’s first-year coach finally caved to the hype surrounding his return to Penn Wednesday, a day after a reporter advised him to enjoy the experience.
“I just made a decision – at that point, I was kind of fighting it – to just embrace it and let it happen,” Dunphy said. “I thought it was a great night.”
Despite watching the Owls blow a 19-point lead and eventually lose, 76-74, Dunphy said the experience felt “absolutely great.”
As Dunphy entered the Palestra, a crowd of 6,103 greeted him with a standing ovation. Dunphy, who coached the Quakers for 17 seasons, casually waved in acknowledgment.
“If you told me I would spend every night in a Big 5 basketball game playing with this intensity and the kids battling back and forth, it’s a wonderful, opportunity I’ve been blessed with,” Dunphy said. “And I will cherish it.”
Dunphy, who became the first coach to head two Big 5 schools, said he understood why the game garnered so much attention, though he disagreed with the way the hype played out.
“I would like the game to come down to Dionte Christmas, Dustin Salisbery, Dion Dacons, Ibby Jaaber, Mark Zoller [and] Steve Danley,” Dunphy said. “Those are the guys you should talk to. Me, I’m a bore [butt]. I’m not going to give you any great quotes or any of that stuff. I’m just a coach.”
On a night on which his two worlds collided, Dunphy said he had mixed emotions.
After the game he hugged Zoller, who won the contest by hitting three free throws with 1.4 seconds left. But for once, Dunphy couldn’t quite share Zoller’s excitement.
“You feel good for those people who are sharing the good times, but for [Temple], all we can do is look at it like our time will come,” Dunphy said. “That’s how I feel.”
With the loss, the Owls fell to 7-11. They have now dropped seven of their last eight games.
“I really wanted to win this game,” Christmas said. “Not only for me and my teammates, but definitely for coach Dunphy. I know he wanted to come in and win the game real bad.”
Behind Christmas, the Owls bolted out of the gate. An 11-0 run over five minutes gave the Owls a comfortable 24-10 lead, with about 10 minutes remaining in the first half. At that point, Christmas already had 13 of his career-high 34 points.
Five minutes later Christmas hit a three-pointer to extend the Owls’ lead to 38-19, their largest of the night.
Then Jaaber, who had been held scoreless, led Penn (11-6) on a 14-0 run. The Quakers senior connected for 11 points as Penn inched its way back within five, at 38-33.
But Christmas made sure the Owls regained the momentum before half, draining a trey at the buzzer to give Temple a 41-33 lead at the break.
Throughout much of the first half, Dunphy had to shuffle his lineup because Semaj Inge, Salisbery and Christmas each found themselves in foul trouble. The trio combined for only 28 minutes of action in the first half.
Penn tied the game at 46-46 less than four minutes into the second half, but couldn’t gain the lead. They ultimately fell down, 63-55, with eight minutes remaining, but Zoller sparked Penn to a comeback.
Zoller hit 12 of his 19 points during the final eight minutes, including a basket with 18.5 seconds left that put Penn up 73-72.
Christmas nailed a jumper with 6 seconds remaining to push the Owls ahead by one, at 74-73. But with 1.4 seconds on the clock, Dacons fouled Zoller at the top of the key, setting up the senior’s game-winning free throws.
As usual the Penn student section unveiled a few clever rollouts, but not without an act of appreciation first.
The first banner read: “Thank you Fran Dunphy. 17 years, 30 wins, 10 Ivy titles.”
Afterward, Dunphy returned the favor.
“I thought the fans were great,” Dunphy said. “I didn’t see the rollouts. I’m sure they were interesting.”
Perhaps it’s good he didn’t see the final three, which poked fun at his decision to leave Penn. One played off of Miller Lite’s man law commercials and the hiring of Glen Miller.
It read: “Man Law: Don’t be a traitor. Miller … Good Call”
John Kopp can be reached at email@example.com.