ATLANTIC CITY, N.J.—Big players make big plays in big games.
Yea, sometimes clichés really do come true.
The men’s basketball team defeated top seed and No. 19 Xavier, 55-53, behind 20 points from senior guard Dionte Christmas. The Owls’ co-captain and top player drained two huge 3-pointers in the final two minutes, plus hit the game icing free-throw, as his team advanced to the finals of the Atlantic Ten Conference Championship tomorrow night.
Fourth-seeded Temple will take on seventh-seeded Duquesne, which upset Dayton, 77-66, in the other semifinal contest. It will be the Dukes’ first title game appearance since 1977.
The Owls’ semifinal victory over the Musketeers Friday night at Boardwalk Hall sends them into their second consecutive A-10 Tournament final and 15th overall. Temple is looking to become the first repeat champions since 2000/2001 when they did it under legendary coach John Chaney.
The Owls have a chance to do that because of Christmas, whose 3-pointer in the waning minutes of the game gave the Owls a four-point lead, which was the first two possession lead of the second half for either team. The trey also gave Christmas 600 points on the season, which he has now achieved for the third straight season.
The second trey gave the Owls a five-point lead with 1:09 to go, and in both cases, there was no doubt who was taking the big shots for the Cherry and White.
“If we lose I want to it to be because of me, if we win I want it to be because of me,” Christmas said. “I’ll talk all the blame, I don’t want any pressure on any of my teammates. I knew once [Xavier senior guard B.J.] Raymond took one step back I was going to take that shot. He bit off my one dribble, and I just went up.”
Temple coach Fran Dunphy didn’t fight Christmas’ request to have the game come down to him.
“We gave him the ball and told him to do something with it. Really profound offensive strategy,” Dunphy said. “He deserved to have the ball in his hands…I’m really happy for him and the way he finished the game tonight.”
When the game officially ended, the celebration was on. Christmas screamed. Senior guard Semaj Inge pointed to his parents in the stands. Sophomore forward Lavoy Allen embraced senior forward Raphael DeLeon.
The Owls were a happy bunch.
“One of the things we wrote on the board before the game was to make a statement,” Inge said. “I think we did that tonight.”
The Owls also held Xavier to a season-low in points, as the Musketeers shot 34.5 percent from the field and turned the ball over 15 times.
“We were working our butts off on defense,” junior guard Ryan Brooks said. “We kept getting stops, going to the glass, getting the first rebound. We just worked really hard down the stretch and it paid off.”
Allen, who finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds, and Olmos, who finished with five points, were central to that, causing havoc inside all game for everyone in white.
“I think his night was especially fantastic in the first half,” Dunphy said on Allen.
“Serg did a great job,” Dunphy added on Olmos. “He’s doing good work.”
Not on Dunphy’s dean’s list was Inge, who committed a turnover on the Owls’ first possession and was quickly replaced by freshman guard Juan Fernandez.
“Coach really cussed me out,” Inge said. “It really woke me up and let me know that this was going to be a dog fight.”
But Inge re-entered the game and played strongly, taking control of the offense when Christmas as out. He finished with five points—all on free-throws.
After the game, the first thing Dunphy did was praise his starting point guard.
“I absolutely was on him like you couldn’t believe earlier in the game,” the Owls’ third-year coach said. “[I] ragged on him tremendously, and he just fought back and was key…I’m especially proud of Semaj.”
The game was a back-and-forth contest in which Temple (21-11) battled back from an early deficit that climbed as high as seven. The Owls found themselves down by a point or two until the 6:23 mark of the first half when a jumper from senior center Sergio Olmos gave them their first lead. From that point until Christmas’ trey, no team held a lead larger than three.
With the close win over a marquee opponent, bubble talk will begin on North Broad Street. Christmas was blunt in his assessment that his team is already NCAA Tournament-caliber.
“I think we do,” he said. “I definitely think we deserve to be in the Tournament.”
Still, Inge knows that there is still work left to do.
“If we don’t win tomorrow, tonight’s game doesn’t mean anything,” Inge said.
The Owls’ contest with Duquesne will begin at 6 p.m. It can be seen nationally on ESPN2.
Game Notes: Despite the win, the Owls shot just 4-17 from beyond the 3-point line…Sophomore forward Craig Williams played just 11 first-half minute…The Temple student section went several rows deep and was loud and boisterous throughout the game…The crowd of 6,160, with help from Dayton fans, was significant pro-Temple, though Xavier did have a solid amount of support.
Todd Orodenker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Front page photo: John Mehler, TTN.