Bob Ford: Temple, St. Joseph's pushed luck too far in Atlantic Ten tourney losses

Posted: March 13, 2011

ATLANTIC CITY - You roll the dice long enough and the dice will find a way to beat you, which is often a hard-learned lesson in this old seashore town. It is a true lesson, nonetheless, and explains why the many glittering lights still burn in the neon palaces along the boardwalk. Even in a recession, the house likes its chances.

Basketball has its own punishments for those who try to beat the odds, and two Philadelphia schools came up snake eyes in the semifinal round of the Atlantic Ten Conference tournament on Saturday. St. Joseph's ran out of road against Dayton despite a furious charge in the last few minutes, and Temple, the highest remaining seed, went dry on offense at the end against Richmond. Teams that shoot 31 percent from the floor - as the Hawks did in their first half and the Owls did in their second half - put themselves in a perilous, usually unhappy situation with the basketball gods.

It happens, and it happened for the last time to St. Joe's, which closes out a painful, building season with an 11-22 record. For Temple, the story is much different. The Owls finished with 12 wins in their final 14 games despite playing without two injured starters, and aside from the loss to Richmond, the only other stumble was against some program named Duke.

"All of these guys showed signs of improvement," St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli said of his young team, "but I just didn't see it collectively so that I can sell it to somebody else . . . Yeah, we've improved, but we still walk out with the tattoo. The tattoo is '11-22, 12th in the league,' and that doesn't sit well with the coach."

That will have to serve as the Hawks' valedictory to the season. Temple will have the opportunity to achieve much more. What remains to be seen is where the NCAA tournament selection committee chooses to seed the Owls, and what bramble of a bracket it decides to place before them.

A year ago, Temple earned a fifth seed, but was matched up against a Cornell team that was undervalued by the committee and should never have been dropped to a 12th seed. The Owls lost by 13 points and coach Fran Dunphy was 0-3 in NCAA tournament games since joining Temple in 2006.

It was a bitter loss, particularly since it seemed the committee went out of its way to match up the Owls against a team coached by Steve Donahue, who had been a Dunphy assistant for a decade at Penn. That's the kind of cute coincidence that happens too often in the NCAA brackets to be coincidence.

What present will the Owls receive on Sunday night? One can only wonder. Dunphy knows Temple could have helped its cause with an A-10 championship, although the previous three didn't seem to matter much.

"I have no control over that," he said after the Richmond loss. "Our control ended with this game. I hope we've done enough to be in that tournament. The prognosticators say we've done enough. But until our name is called, you're still on pins and needles."

The name will be called. The only question is where that name will be placed in the tournament. Prior to Saturday's semifinals, the bracket predictors had Temple as a seventh seed, still ranked behind conference rival Xavier, which lost in the quarterfinal round here, and ranked behind nine Big East teams as well.

Conceivably, the Owls could fall into the bottom half of the bracket if the past is any indication, and they could be shipped far from home and paired against a team that provides a particularly difficult match for them. Temple supporters will see conspiracy on every line of the bracket, which makes them about the same as the supporters of any other team.

Still, Temple could have done its part to change that, and the Owls didn't do so against Richmond. Point guard Juan Fernandez had a bad day, shooting just 3 for 17 from the field. A few of the misses were forced shots, but most of them were either decent looks or shots he had to take because the shot clock was moving and none of his teammates were doing likewise.

"The things that make [Fernandez] great can also give him some cause for difficulty, but we're happy to live with him," Dunphy said. "I'll trust him with the ball any time."

Not all of those times turn out well, however, and the same goes for the rest of the Owls, none of whom stepped forward to take command of the Richmond game. Temple made just three of its final 19 tries from the field after taking a three-point lead with 12 minutes to play. From that perspective, it's a tribute to something or other that the Owls only lost by four points.

Still, it was a loss, a bad roll of the dice in a town that isn't big on mulligans. Now, Temple waits to see what happens next, which isn't really that awful a bargain. St. Joseph's would take it. The Hawks already know that what happens next is a long wait.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com and read his blog at http://www.philly.com/

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