Temple News staff writer Jason Haslam covered the A-10 tournament in Dayton, Ohio.
This is his recap of Temple’s run that ended just shy of a tournament championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
DAYTON, Ohio — When the Temple Owls arrived in Dayton for the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament, little was expected from them.
By the time the tournament concluded, they nearly stole the show and the A-10 championship.
Despite coach John Chaney’s masterful coaching performance and his players’ mature effort, the Owls came up just short of a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Actually, Chaney’s game plan never changed – play suffocating defense and capitalize off of it.
The difference was the indefatigable efforts from his tournament-thirsty Owls.
After failing to qualify for last year’s field of 65, the only way the Owls were going to get a bid this season was win the A-10 title.
After eliminating Richmond, 66-52, a win led by junior guard Brian Polk’s 23 points, the Owls faced 10th-ranked Xavier.
Essentially, Polk’s play would be the difference in this tourney.
Against three-time A-10 Player of the Year David West and his Musketeers, the Owls used a complete team effort to knock out the top seed of the tournament, 63-57.
Polk had 22 points, junior guard David Hawkins 21 and freshman guard Maurice Collins had 10, as all three hit big shots in crunch time.
The Owls kept West in check, holding him to 12 points on just seven shots.
When the Owls overcame a three-point halftime deficit, it marked just the second time in 47 games the Musketeers had lost a game after leading at the break.
“We weren’t fearing nothing,” Polk said.
The day after Dayton fans cheered wildly for Temple against Xavier, the Flyers’ heated rival, Flyers fans would create an electric atmosphere for the championship game.
The Owls fell behind 14-0 less than six minutes into the game.
After settling down, Temple played with some fluidity to get back in the game.
After cutting the deficit to five – twice in the final five minutes of the game – the Flyers answered repeatedly, triumphing 79-72, to win their first A-10 title.
“The fact that we didn’t score for the first five minutes, we dug ourselves into so big a hole we couldn’t get ourselves out of it,” said Hawkins, who averaged 19 points in three tournament games.
Polk’s gritty performance earned him a spot on the all-tournament team, and his 14 three-pointers tied an A-10 tourney record.
Still, Polk felt the need to offer a mea culpa after getting defeated in the title game.
“I try so hard and felt there was more that I needed to do,” he said.
“I felt as though I kind of let some people down even though I knew it was a good tournament.”
All of the players felt a particular responsibility to winning for their coach.
“It’s a little hard to swallow, because we know how close we were in getting there, and we know how bad we wanted to get coach back into the NCAA Tournament,” said senior forward Alex Wesby, who averaged 7.3 points and five rebounds.
As usual, Chaney mesmerized the sportswriters assembled in the media room with his biting humor.
He playfully complained about the steep ramp that leads onto the court at Dayton Arena.
Then, after the win over Xavier, he asked if it was OK to get a bottle of liquor for the press conference.
By the end of the tournament it was pretty evident that he wanted to win more for the sake of his players.
“I felt bad because we’re losing Alex, and he’s one of my sons,” Chaney said.
“I said to them, the hardest thing you have to do is win a championship. That’s a hard job. But it becomes easier if you keep your focus on what you have to do.”
The players found it hard accepting the loss, but by finishing at an even .500, they still qualified for the National Invitation Tournament (NIT).
Despite a two-year hiatus from the NCAA’s, Chaney and his Owls will be part of post-season play for a 20th consecutive season.
Jason Haslam covers the men’s basketball team for The Temple News. E-mail him at email@example.com.