Big-time players live for big-time spots. For Dionte Christmas and Temple, it didn't get much larger than last Saturday, when Top 10 Tennessee made its way to North Broad Street for an ESPN tilt.

The Owls won comfortably. Not shockingly, it was their 6-5 senior guard who induced most of the carnage.

Christmas had 30 points - in the second half. That gave him 35 for the afternoon, two off his career high. In the decisive run, he drilled five consecutive threes. After scoring nine in his team's previous 90 minutes.

"That's just the way it goes sometimes," he said. "I understood how important it was. Not only for the program, but me as well. I knew people were looking at me to make something happen.

"I was actually kind of nervous.

"The night before I talked to [local hoops guru] John Hartnett. He told me to just play my game, do what I do best."

Which, of course, is splash the ball through the twine. Quite often from at least semiserious distance.

"When you get hot like that, it feels good," Christmas said. "If you're a shooter, you know. Once you hit the first one, then the second, you know the third, fourth and fifth are going down.

"My teammates and the coaches recognized that, and kept going to me. I give all the credit to them."

Christmas is trying to become the first player to lead the Atlantic 10 in scoring three times. He has averaged 20 and 19.7 points a game the last two seasons, after averaging 11 minutes in his first.

The Philadelphia Lutheran Christian Academy product (following four seasons at Fels High) is now averaging 21 points per game for the defending conference champions, who are 5-3 going to defending national champ Kansas (7-2) for tomorrow's 2:30 p.m. ESPN2 matchup.

Another marquee stage.

"I know the Tennessee game probably opened a lot of people's eyes," Christmas said. "I don't want to sneak up on anyone. I want them to know that we're coming. We want to make as much noise as possible . . .

"My teammates look to see how I respond. When we played Clemson [Nov. 16, in the Charleston Classic], I won't forget it, I had zero at halftime. Before that, I'd had two real good games starting out. So they wanted to see where I was. Semaj [Inge] pulls me aside and said, 'This is where you make your money, against teams like this. We're counting on you.' In the second half I had like 14, and we almost came back to win.

"From then on, I've tried to keep that in mind."

A year ago, he and eventual Big 5 co-Player of the Year Mark Tyndale shared the cover of the team's media guide. It was titled, "1-2 Punch." This season, he's sharing it with the A-10 trophy. Under the heading, "Five Months of Christmas."

Still, it's not a solo. Four other Owls are scoring between 9.3 and 13.5. But Christmas, who also is contributing 6.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.4 steals, is the ingredient that mostly makes it go.

"I think he's working hard at trying to be the best all-around player he can be," Owls third-year coach Fran Dunphy said. "Obviously everyone knows he can shoot [46.8 percent from anywhere, 40.3 from the arc]. And he doesn't need much time or space. In order to be the best, he really needs to develop the midrange game, and a defensive mentality that you're always in the right place.

"He is a good teammate. I think he genuinely cares about his team winning. When he scored two at Penn State and we won, I think it was OK for him. Would he have rather played better? Absolutely. But in the end, he handled it well. He understood it wasn't his night. Maybe the next time, it would be."

That turned out to be Tennessee.

Last March, the Owls went to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 7 years. They lost to fifth-seeded Michigan State, by 11. Christmas went 1-for-12, 0-for-8. He'd like a mulligan.

"There's so many things you want to accomplish, as an individual and a group," he said. "Hopefully I have another 27, 28 games left in my [college] career. That's the most important thing in my life. That, and graduating. That's the focus.

"Until then, I have to put all that other stuff about the next level aside."

In the meantime, he'll keep doing what he does. And, in a perfect world, even more.

"People who know basketball know if you had a good game or not," Christmas said. "In the street, if you had 35 you were the man. But I might have taken 37 shots. I'm always trying to elevate my total game. Everyone knows I can score. It's nothing special any more. Coach will tell me about the things I didn't do well. I take that as a challenge. What matters is winning. Then everyone gets noticed.

"I want all the pressure put on me. That's a good thing for our team. I tell the other guys to just play ball. We lost two great leaders [Tyndale and Chris Clark]. I'm trying to fill the gap they left. They were the reason for a lot of my success. I'm always thinking, 'What would they do?' In a lot of ways, I'm trying to do everything possible to be a good role model.

"This week's been crazy. I've heard from people I'd forgot about. Text messages, Facebooks, all kinds of things. It was fun while it lasted. But it was a game. We have more."

And you never know which one could be the next time. *