PHILADELPHIA (AP) – Dionte Christmas likes to look up in the rafters at the Final Four and regional final banners representing six decades of Temple success.

What bothered Temple’s star guard when he arrived here four years ago was how the row of celebratory cloth ended after a 2001 regional final banner.

When Christmas returns to north Philadelphia in 20 years, he’ll be grayer, slower – and certainly prouder – of the two banners he helped get raised high atop the Liacouras Center.

“I can look up and see 2008, 2009, back-to-back champs,” he said.

“That’s quite an accomplishment. There are so many guys that came to this program, pros and things like that, that haven’t gotten back-to-back titles.”

The Owls (22-11) earned their second straight NCAA bid when they won the Atlantic 10 tournament title on Saturday, truly returning coach Fran Dunphy’s team as players again on the national basketball scene. This time, the Owls intended to stick around the tournament a bit longer and savor the experience.

“We don’t want to go home early,” Christmas said on Monday.

The Owls traveled last year to Denver on a Tuesday, played at 10:30 a.m. local time on Thursday and were the first team eliminated from the tournament in a loss to Michigan State.

Temple’s first NCAA tournament game in seven years was over before their fans out east were finished with lunch.

At least now they’ll get an extra day and a few more hours. The 11th-seeded Owls leave Wednesday for Miami and play sixth-seeded Arizona State (24-9) on Friday afternoon.

“The fact is, whenever you get in those situations, you have to deliver,” Dunphy said.

Dunphy has delivered on his promise to make the Owls relevant again, nationally and in Philadelphia, where Big East power Villanova often nabs all the local hoops headlines.

Hall of Fame coach John Chaney’s combustible personality kept Temple in the national spotlight in his last five seasons, but not the national rankings.

When Chaney retired in 2006, the Owls hadn’t played in the tournament since 2001, and Dunphy decided to leave the Ivy League power he built at Penn after 17 seasons.

If Chaney was a large coffee with 10 shots of espresso, Dunphy was more a cup of decaffeinated tea.

“Obviously, I’m not going to be nearly the personality that John Chaney was,” Dunphy said.

Chaney’s retirement nearly scared away Christmas, his last prized recruit who gave plenty of thought to transferring out of Temple after the 2006 NIT. Christmas was a Philly kid and former public league scoring champ who was devoted to Chaney and knew little about his new low-key coach other than hearing of Dunphy’s name at Penn.

Their first 1-on-1 meeting eased all of Christmas’ concerns. Christmas was impressed that Dunphy immersed himself in film and broke down the guard’s game in that initial meeting. Dunphy’s open offense would play right into Christmas’ strengths.

“I was going to get my chance to show him what I could do, and I think I did that,” Christmas said.

Did he ever.

Christmas won consecutive Atlantic 10 scoring titles (2007-08) and leads the Owls again in scoring with 19.2 points. He scored 35 points in Temple’s upset of No. 8 Tennessee in December, and had 29 points in the Owls’ 69-64 victory over Duquesne in the A-10 title game on Saturday night. Christmas was named the tournament’s outstanding player for the second straight year.

“He does have those moments of inconsistency shooting the ball, but I think for the most part Saturday, we wouldn’t walk out with a win without Dionte Christmas going crazy in the first half,” Dunphy said.

Christmas returned home to listen to congratulatory phone calls and texts from former Temple standouts like Lynn Greer, David Hawkins and Mardy Collins.

Christmas and the Owls showed a much more subdued celebration in Atlantic City, N.J. this year. Dunphy thought “there was some awe” of playing in the NCAA tournament last season, but this year the Owls appear much more understanding of the larger goals ahead in March.

“I thought one of the telling things was our players acted like they had been there before,” Dunphy said.

Temple’s run of three wins in three days earned the admiration of Villanova coach Jay Wright, who guided the Wildcats to a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament.

“You have to be a really solid team to make it through those three or four days,” Wright said. “It’s not a surprise to me. I think Fran’s one of the best in the country, I really do.”

The only blemish on Dunphy’s resume is just one tournament win (1994) in 10 previous trips. His Quakers, who played without scholarships, were often overmatched by the big boys in the power conferences. No Owl expects a lopsided outcome on Friday.

“I never had a doubt if we’d be successful or not,” Christmas said.

AP-ES-03-16-09 1929EDT


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