Christmas came 12 days early.
After perhaps the worst two-game stretch of his career, Dionte Christmas delivered 35 points - 30 of which came during a spellbinding second half - as Temple knocked off No. 8 Tennessee, 88-72, yesterday, giving its jubilant fans at the Liacouras Center an early holiday gift.
"When you're hot, you're hot," Christmas said. "The second half the basket looked like an ocean."
The senior guard scored 24 of the Owls' first 33 points 11 minutes and 15 seconds into the second half. At one point, he tallied nine straight points for Temple - all on three-pointers - as the Owls expanded a four-point lead to a 67-52 cushion. Christmas shot 12 of 22 from the field, 7 of 14 from beyond the arc, and rebounded from a two-game lull.
He scored 11 points in Temple's 68-52 loss to Miami of Ohio ten days ago, and recorded his lowest output in three seasons when he put up two points in a 65-59 win over Penn State last Saturday.
"Twenty NBA scouts were here today," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said, "and they obviously got a real show of what a big-time NBA two-guard can do when he gets it going."
Surely, many of those scouts came to see a Volunteers team loaded with talent. But Tennessee's ranking may have been inflated by its reputation. In reality, it is a young group that lost five players from last season's rotation.
"We're ranked too high right now and that's going to get adjusted," Pearl said. "I understand that."
Still, the victory was an important one for the Owls, who travel to Kansas on Saturday. No. 25 Kansas, meanwhile, lost to the Temple's fellow Atlantic 10 Conference member Massachusetts, 61-60, yesterday.
Three seasons into coach Fran Dunphy's tenure at Temple big-moment upsets are no longer a surprise.
"Whether or not it's a watershed moment for us will be determined later on," Dunphy said.
The win did show that Temple (5-3 overall) could weather through long periods without Lavoy Allen. The sophomore forward was out with a broken thumb in an early-season loss to Buffalo and played sparingly in the Miami defeat. Yesterday, he got into foul trouble and played only 18 minutes.
But center Sergio Olmos, with a career-high 19 points to go with seven rebounds and five blocks, gave the Owls a steady presence inside. And Dunphy was able to implement a four-guard lineup that forced athletic Tennessee (6-2) into shooting woes. The Volunteers shot 27.3 percent (9 of 33) from the floor in the first half and 36.5 pct. (23 of 63) overall.
But none of that seemed to matter the way Christmas shot it. Often if you give the 6-foot-5 guard an inch, he'll burn you. Tennessee, for some reason, gave him inches and inches out on the perimeter.
"We had nobody that could be in his hip pocket," Pearl said.
Said Christmas: "When I came off the screens those guys had their hands down and backed off me a little bit. I was kind of surprised. When I see I guy like that, that gives me the go."
An announced crowd of 8,068 saw the Owls host a top ten opponent for the first time in four years. Despite just a three-fourths full arena, the atmosphere was charged for the ESPN-broadcast game. Students held up "Merry Christmas" signs and wore Santa hats in honor of Christmas, who came bearing gifts.
"There was something special going on," Dunphy said. "The crowd was great again and the students were great. It just felt like we were prepared."