ATLANTIC CITY -- A scene like this would have been hard to envision back in November, when Temple was simply not playing good basketball.
But here were the Owls, cutting down the nets at Boardwalk Hall Saturday night after their fans had stormed the floor following the team's 69-64 win over Saint Joseph's in the championship game of the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament.
Yes, after a six-year layoff, Temple is going back to the NCAA Tournament. The Owls (21-12), who landed the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament and a first-round bye, have won seven games in a row and will now enjoy the luxury of hearing their name called on Selection Sunday for the first time since the 2001 season, the last time they won the A-10 Tournament and earned the automatic bid to the Big Dance.
Dionte Christmas, named the tournament's most outstanding player, scored a game-high 22 points, shooting 8-for-14 from the floor while hitting 5 of 8 attempts from three-point range. Ryan Brooks contributed 15 points, and Chris Clark added 10, including a big trey at the end of the first half that kept Temple within a manageable seven-point deficit at halftime.
Mark Tyndale, who was also named to the all-tournament team, didn't have his best shooting night, hitting just 1 of 8 from the field and 6-for-10 from the free throw line for eight points, but he collected nine rebounds and eight assists to go with a pair of steals and a block. And after coughing the ball up eight times in Temple's semifinal win over Charlotte, Tyndale did not commit a turnover in the championship game.
Tyndale and Clark, the team's two senior captains, eventually found each other at halfcourt amid the sea of people, jumped up into the air and settled in for a hug.
"It's unbelievable, man," Clark said in the locker room after the postgame celebration had finally settled down a bit. "I'm at a loss for words."
You'll have to forgive guys like Tyndale and Clark if they thought they might go through their entire four-year careers at Temple without ever getting the chance to play in the NCAA Tournament. Remember that this was a team that started the season 0-3 after blowing a pair of double-digit leads in loses to Providence and College of Charleston in November at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Classic.
And when it did get its first win, Temple had to squeak out a 73-69 victory over Marist in overtime.
"I couldn't have imagined [finishing off the season with an A-10 title] at all," Clark admitted. "We came a long way. But hey, guys have been stepping up all year long. Ryan Brooks had a good game, Serge (Sergio Olmos) has been playing well the last 10, 11 games, so we've got guys that have been stepping up, and that's what it's about."
After his team finished 12-18 last year, Temple coach Fran Dunphy is taking the Owls to the NCAA Tournament in his second season on North Broad Street.
"It's a tremendous turnaround, and I give our seniors as much credit as I possibly can," Dunphy said. "Chris and Mark have been great leaders for this group in different ways. It's just one of those teams that I think has a great chemistry to it. They like one another, and it just kind of came together."
After trailing by seven at halftime, Temple took control of the game by opening the second half with a 16-2 run to gain a 41-34 lead. It started with a baseline dunk from Lavoy Allen and continued with a trey from Christmas. After a tip-in from St. Joe's center Ahmad Nivins, Christmas answered with a driving layup, and Olmos eventually drew the Owls even at 34-34 with a pair of free throws with 16:21 left in the half.
Clark gave Temple its first lead of the game at the 15:51 mark on a three, and he responded with a steal and layup on the ensuing possession. A hook shot from Allen over Nivins made it a 41-34 ballgame with 13:12 remaining.
"It was (Temple's) run in the second half that was the difference in the game," said St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli, whose team, at 21-12, seems in a favorable position to get an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament but will still have to wait things out Sunday.
Nivins led St. Joe's with 18 points, but 12 of them came in the first half. Much like it did when it beat the Hawks at The Palestra March 2, Temple contained St. Joe's big man over the last 20 minutes, forcing him into three turnovers. The Hawks had four players score in double figures, but senior forward Pat Calathes shot 2-for-10 from three-point range and 5 of 13 overall to get his 14 points. Darrin Govens got nine of his 12 points in the first half.
St. Joe's jumped out to a 15-5 lead behind sharp shooting from Govens, who hit two long jumpers and a trey, and Nivins, who scored on a layup, a reverse dunk and a pair of free throws. Temple eventually closed to within a basket with 10:06 left in the first half after Christmas converted a four-point play when he was fouled by Garrett Williamson on a three-pointer, but the Hawks went on an 8-0 run to push their lead back out to 10.
Temple would have been in big trouble in the first half had it not been for Christmas, who shot 4-for-8 and 3 of 5 from beyond the arc in the first 20 minutes. The rest of the team shot 3-for-17.
The second half was a different story. After its game-changing run, Temple's lead grew as large as nine points after Christmas hit a trey with 11:03 to play. St. Joe's got within three – both times courtesy of layups from Tasheed Carr, the latter of which came with 4:34 to play, making it a 58-55 ballgame.
The Owls did make things interesting for themselves by enduring a stretch that saw them hit just 1 of 6 shots from the foul line, but Brooks and Tyndale eventually settled things down by hitting a pair of free throws apiece inside the game's last 20 seconds to seal the win.
"I've been a Temple fan all my life," said Tyndale, who played his high school basketball at Philadelphia's Simon Gratz High School. "When I got here, I just wanted to get to the tournament, and that's what I did my senior year. It's going to be great to hear our name get called on Selection Sunday. I can't describe the feeling; it's a great feeling. I'm just so happy and proud of my teammates."
OwlScoop.com Editor John Di Carlo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.