Temple Owls hot to face Arizona State Sun Devils in Miami

Posted: March 16, 2009

TEMPLE COACH Fran Dunphy had never been a head coach in a conference tournament until he got to Temple 3 years ago. He has gotten the hang of it rather quickly.

After beating Duquesne, 69-64, for the Atlantic 10 championship Saturday night in Atlantic City, Dunphy's Owls have won six consecutive A-10 Tournament games and two consecutive championships.

The Owls had about 22 hours to digest it all before they gathered at the Liacouras Center to watch the Selection Show last evening. They had to wait until the final slot name to see Temple on the board. But everybody in the Fox-Gittis Room knew as soon as "Arizona State" came up that Temple would be playing the Sun Devils. They started to cheer before the name appeared and kept cheering when it did appear.

"Lavoy [Allen] joked around and said, 'Are we even in the tournament, did they just forget about us?' " the Owls' Ryan Brooks said.

No. 11 seed Temple (22-11) will play No. 6 seed Arizona State (24-9) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday in Miami. If the Owls win, they will play the winner of No. 3 Syracuse and No. 14 Stephen F. Austin on Sunday.

The Arizona State game is something Dionte Christmas, the most outstanding player in the A-10 tourney for the second straight year, has been waiting for since his 1-for-12 (0-for-8 from three) effort against Michigan State in a first-round NCAA loss last year.

"It was real important to [get another chance]," Christmas said. "I did not represent myself or my team the way I should have in the tournament. I think this year, it's going to be a different story."

Christmas won Friday's semifinal game with Xavier with two giant threes between the 2-minute and 1-minute mark. He followed with 29 points against Duquesne, including seven threes. His high-arcing shots looked like they might hit the ceiling, but they kept splashing through the net. He now has 2,014 career points. Just think how many he might have if he had gotten more run as a freshman when he had just 111 points.

Christmas can go off at any time. And he never lacks for confidence. Before he shot Xavier out of the tournament, he was 4-for-25 in the previous two games.

"My teammates and coach Dunphy have all the confidence in the world in me," Christmas said. "It's hard to get down on yourself with teammates like that."

Last year, Christmas had 22 points against Saint Joseph's in the championship game. He had 29 against La Salle in the quarterfinals. Now, he gets a second chance to go off in the NCAA.

The Sun Devils lost the Pacific-10 championship game to USC on Saturday after blowing a big lead. They have the very versatile James Harden, who will make many first-team All-America lists, and the nation's most accurate shooter, Jeff Pendergraph.

Temple was the first team eliminated last year when it had to play a morning game in Denver against Michigan State on Thursday. Having the Friday game definitely helps.

"That was nuts [last year]," Dunphy said. "We were too far outside the city. I was complaining the whole time. Now, I have no complaints. Shut up and just play the game. My one complaint is, we've got to play a team as good as Arizona State. We'll take it."

Dunphy probably suspected he had a championship-level team. Circumstances kept them from showing it until the stretch run when they won 10 of 12. Temple had just two home games before January. The Owls played 17 true road games, more than any team in the tournament. They had serious travel issues on their way to losses at Kansas and Long Beach State. Juan Fernandez did not arrive until Dec. 26. It was all a bit disjointed. When they got into the conference schedule, they got into a nice rhythm. This is a team with a lot of answers and one incandescent scorer.

Fernandez, a valuable player off the bench who has a chance to be really good, seemed a bit bewildered by the scene in the room yesterday, one that has people yelling at TV screens with numbers and names and a few talking heads.

"This is crazy," he said. "I found out about the [show] yesterday . . . I was really nervous. I don't know why. Everything's new." *

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