DENVER – The topic of Colorado’s much-publicized thin-air came up two days in a row at Temple’s NCAA Tournament press conferences.
Like his teammates, seniors Mark Tyndale and Chris Clark, junior Dionte Christmas, the Owls leading scorer, said he didn’t feel affected by the Mile-High State’s altitude.
Christmas’ respiratory system may have been fine, but his jump shot could’ve used some oxygen in the No. 12-seeded Owls’ 72-61 loss to No. 5 Michigan State Thursday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Thursday at the Pepsi Center. The Owls finished the season with a 21-13 overall record.
Christmas scored a season-low three points as all but one of his 12 field goal attempts flatlined.
A tenacious defensive effort from Michigan State (26-8) didn’t help the flight pattern of the 6-foot-5 guard’s shots either.
“It was just good help defense,” said Christmas, who was held scoreless in the first half. “They were very physical. That was one of the most physical teams I’ve played against ever.”
The Spartans kept 6-foot-7 sophomore Raymar Morgan, junior Travis Walton and senior Drew Neitzel on Christmas throughout the game.
The multiple-defender strategy, dubbed the “six eyes defense,” is a takeoff on a scorer-stopping plan once employed by another Michigan team – the NBA’s Detroit Pistons.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said the Spartans defensive strategy on Christmas was based on the “Jordan Rules” the Pistons method of guarding six-time NBA Champion Michael Jordan in the late-1980s and early 1990s. The strategy involved keeping multiple defenders on Jordan, pressuring him and switching defenses to throw him off balance.
The adapted strategy worked wonders on Christmas.
“It was just something we stole from somebody,” Izzo said referring to Pistons, who won back-to-back NBA Championships in 1989 and 1990 while employing the “Jordan Rules.”
“We’ve used it for three or four years on prolific scorers that also are good penetrators.”
Despite what Izzo said, Christmas never really got into the lane that much.
Eight of his 12 misfires were launched from behind the arc.
“I just tried to press up on him a little bit. Keep a hand in his face,” Morgan said.
“I thought they switched out on Dionte great,” Temple coach Fran Dunphy said. “He was always contested. With the exception of maybe the last one in the game, I thought most of his shots were absolutely contested.”
The off-shooting night got to Christmas, who occasionally quarreled with referees over calls and voiced his displeasure with a couple of the assistant coaches as he sat on the bench.
“Dionte was being guarded like he’s never been guarded before,” Dunphy said. “He didn’t get any good looks. Certainly, he’s going to get frustrated.”
Asked why his players didn’t appear to shed tears after the game ended, Dunphy said, “I don’t think that’s the particular way these guys are.”
He also said that because of Michigan State’s late-game lead, his players saw the writing on the wall.
“[It] gave us a pretty good indication that we weren’t going to be ale to combat that,” Dunphy said. “But I think when you get into the locker room and once they sit down and think about [the loss], reflect a little bit, then they may think a little bit more emotionally about it.”
Clark sat solemnly on the bench next to junior Sergio Olmos, who placed his head in his hand as the final seconds ticked off the clock. Dunphy said Clark the “most difficult hug to make” he had to make after the game.
“It was tough,” Clark said. “Coach Dunphy, I love him to death. He’s like a father figure, a mentor, a great person, great human being. I mean I can’t say enough about him and how he helped me grow into the leader I am today.
“It was a great run. I have no regrets. There’s still a lot of positives you can look at from the season – Co-Big 5 champs, Atlantic Ten [Conference] champs. You wish you would’ve won today but at the same time you’re proud of what you accomplished this season.”
Tyndale also had an optimistic outlook of the Owls run.
“I think it was great for the program,” Tyndale said. “I really appreciate my teammates and the coaching staff. They’ve really grown on me and made me become a better man.”
With the loss, the Owls became the fourth consecutive A-10 Champion to fall in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. George Washington lost in 2007 and 2005, while Xavier was knocked out in the opening round in 2006 … Junior Semaj Inge nabbed a season-high three steals, all of which came in the second half.
Tyson McCloud can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also read: “Spartans end Owls season”