ATLANTIC CITY — The opportunity was there for Dionte Christmas to show his value Wednesday night.
An opportunity to give the couple-thousand in attendance a glimpse of the recently named Atlantic Ten Conference Most Improved Player.
But when he launched a potential game-tying three-pointer in the last seconds of the Owls’ A-10 tournament opener, Christmas’ shot clanged off the rim and the wind in Temple’s sails went with it.
Christmas put up just seven points – well below his 20 points-per-game average this season – as the Owls couldn’t hold off a third loss to Saint Joseph’s this season.
The Owls dropped a 66-62 decision in the nightcap of the A-10 tourney, held at Boardwalk Hall. And Christmas couldn’t help but feel responsible.
“[That shot] definitely usually falls for me, but tonight St. Joe’s did a good job playing me,” said Christmas, who was also named to the conference’s all-Second Team. “I think [Hawks guard] D.J. Rivera knew the play was going to me.”
Despite the loss – and the end to his breakout season – the conference’s scoring leader kept his head up.
The sophomore guard didn’t look like himself, the player who was named the Atlantic Ten Conference’s Most Improved Player. He knew it. So did the Hawks.
Though he played 34 minutes, Christmas could be found on the bench at some key stretches of the second half.
“You want your best five guys out there. Dionte coming out of the game hurt us for a stretch,” coach Fran Dunphy said.
In all, Christmas finished 3-of-9 from the floor. That total includes his final shot of the game, which bounced off the rim with 20 seconds to play.
“Dionte is our best shooter coming off screens. It was his shot,” senior captain Dustin Salisbery said. “He had a good look. It just didn’t drop.”
A year removed from his 3.5 points-per-game scoring average as a freshman, Christmas has averaged 20.3 points a contest this year. He scored at least 20 points on 12 occasions and reached the 30-point plateau five times.
Personal accolades aside, Christmas said he would have wanted a couple more wins in the A-10 tournament to solidify this season as a positive experience.
“The only thing I could’ve expected for us was to go further in this tournament and win the Atlantic Ten,” Christmas said.
St. Joe’s coach Phil Martelli said he wasn’t happy with his team’s overall play, but he was satisfied with their defense on Christmas. In three games against the Owls this season, the Hawks have buckled down on Christmas to allow him just 10, nine and seven points.
“To come out of here with Christmas with seven . . . I was pleased,” Martelli said.
Christmas represents the first Owl to earn the A-10’s Most Improved Player award.
But Christmas is less concerned with history or his spot in the A-10’s postseason honor roll. He said he thought teammate Mark Tyndale was deserving of a higher place in the all-conference teams.
Among guards in the conference, Tyndale, who was named to the honorable mention team, finished in the A-10’s top five in points, assists, steals and rebounds.
The junior has also improved his field goal percentage significantly, which is at 54 percent and up from 33 and 39 percent in his freshman and sophomore seasons, respectively.
The Owls might have lost in Atlantic City, but the Hawks and three other teams extended their seasons by at least one more game with first-round wins Wednesday:
No. 8 Dayton 81, No. 9 Charlotte 63
In the tournament opener, Charlotte held tough with Dayton, but the higher-seeded Flyers pulled away behind a late run in the second half.
Dayton guard Brian Roberts drilled a three-pointer in the 11th minute of the second half. The trey broke a 50-50 tie, started the Flyers on a 15-2 run and gave them a permanent lead.
“It was big. We knew the type of team Charlotte is. They’re streaky,” said Roberts, who tallied a game-high 24 points. “If we could get them buried, it would be to our advantage.”
Dayton (19-11), which moves on to play top-seeded Xavier Thursday at 12 p.m., will be without top reserve Marcus Johnson, who was helped off the court with five minutes left.
The 49ers (14-16) received 23 points from guard Leemire Goldwire.
No. 5 Fordham 63, No. 12 Richmond 61
A missed layup kept the Spiders from pulling the first upset of this season’s tournament.
With nine seconds left, the Spiders (8-22) trailed by one when David Gonzalvez hit the side of the backboard on a five-footer from the baseline. The Rams took the ball the other way, where Sebastien Green made one free throw to close out the Spiders’ hopes.
“Piece of cake. I knew it from the beginning,” Fordham coach Dereck Whittenburg said jokingly. “[The Spiders] hung in there. They’re a gutsy team.”
Richmond’s Dan Geriot scored 27 points, while Fordham’s Bryant Dunston and Marcus Stout dropped 21 and 17 points, respectively.
The win was just the fourth-ever in the A-10 tournament for the Rams (18-11), who will play fourth-seeded Rhode Island at 2:30 p.m. Thursday.
No. 7 Saint Louis 78, No. 10 Duquesne 77
It took a while, but one team finally set itself apart from the other in the third game of the opening round.
Saint Louis’ four-headed attack of Ian Vouyoukas (19 points), Kevin Lisch (18), Luke Meyer (16) and Tommie Liddell (14) combined to help eliminate Duquesne, which has made the quarterfinals only twice since 1995.
The Dukes eventually lost the game at the free throw line. That’s where guard Scott Grote converted one of his free throws but missed the other with 7.6 seconds remaining, leaving Duquesne one point shy of a tie.
With the win the Billikens (19-12), in their second year in the conference, picked up their first-ever A-10 tourney win. They’ll face second-seeded Massachusetts Thursday in a 6:30 p.m. start.
Three Dukes (10-19) reached double-digit scoring totals, including a team-high 14 points from Keiron Achara.
In the first of a two-year contract with Atlantic City and Boardwalk Hall, the A-10’s championship tournament was sparsely attended for each of the first three games. Officials said they anticipate a spike in attendance as the tourney progresses. . . .
According to the athletic department’s Web site, Temple fans were divided on how far the men’s basketball team would advance in the A-10 tournament. Of participants in the poll, 41.1 percent said the Owls would bow out in the opening round, while 40.3 percent said they’d win it all.
Christopher A. Vito can be reached at email@example.com.