Jim Salisbury | For Dunphy, it's about the game

Fran Dunphy didn't want it to be all about him, and in the end it wasn't. Temple and Penn played a terrific basketball game last night, one that reminded you once again just how special the Big Five is, one that left you wondering why the Palestra wasn't sold out.

But as good as the game was - Mark Zoller's three free throws in the final 1.4 seconds lifted Penn to a 76-74 victory and left the undergrads storming the floor - this was, in a lot of ways, Dunphy's night, even if it didn't turn out the way he would have scripted it.

"That was just a tremendous atmosphere," he said, "and I'm blessed to have been a part of it."

This was like Bill Parcells going back to Giants Stadium. For 17 seasons, Dunphy coached Penn in this building, and last night he came back coaching the team from across town.

He had known this night was coming for months. He knew there would be hype and he protested it. But as the game got closer, Dunphy made a pact with himself.

Enjoy it.

Win or lose, enjoy it.

"I fought it," he said of the buzz surrounding his return. "I don't know why people want to talk about me. I'm boring. But finally, I just embraced it and I did enjoy it. It was a lot of fun. I am so privileged to coach college basketball."

Ten minutes after the game, the ending was still a blur for Dunphy. Dionte Christmas, who scored 34 points, had hit a jumper with six seconds left to give Temple a one-point lead. Then Zoller was fouled outside the three-point arc. Three shots. Zoller made all of them.

"I've never been more nervous in my entire life," Zoller said. "My knees were shaking."

Talk about careering emotions - for everyone involved. Zoller, a senior, played for Dunphy for three years at Penn. Leading up to the game, he had compared playing against Dunphy to playing against his father.

"I take that as a compliment," Dunphy said.

Dunphy spoke in a small interview room under the stands at the Palestra, the same room in which he spoke after so many Penn wins.

He was still talking about a Penn win. Only he did not orchestrate this one.

As one fan behind press row told Dunphy in the first half: "You don't work here anymore."

Yes, Dunphy's return to the best arena in college basketball stirred plenty of emotion, and some of it was mixed.

Ninety minutes before the game, he met with a group of Penn supporters who had requested he stop by and say hello.

Dunphy got a nice hand during introductions, with many in the courtside seats rising to their feet to applaud him. Five minutes into the game, the Penn students at the west end of the building unfurled a hand-painted banner that read "Thank You Fran Dunphy: 17 years, 310 wins, 10 Ivy League titles."

A few minutes later, that same group of students pulled out another banner, this one with the word "Traitor" on it. Another one told Dunphy not to worry about losing in the NCAA tournament this year.

There were other barbs, but all in all they were pretty good-natured. Penn fans were thrilled to beat Dunphy and his team, but the lingering feeling was that the folks at Penn miss Dunphy. Why wouldn't they? The guy is a gentleman and a terrific coach and molder of young men.

Andy Baratta knows all about that. He played for Dunphy from 1991 to 1994 and helped the Quakers win two Ivy League titles.

Baratta watched Dunphy's return from about a dozen rows up behind the Temple bench. It was a bittersweet experience.

"It doesn't feel right," said Baratta, motioning toward the Temple bench. "Obviously, I'm incredibly happy for Dunph. But I'm a little disappointed with the way Penn allowed him to leave. I would have liked to have seen them do something to make his decision harder."

That said, Baratta thinks Temple is headed for big things under his former coach.

"I think he's going to win a national title at Temple," he said. "He has the integrity and the class that will attract kids who want to work hard and sacrifice and do what it takes to win. At Temple, he'll be able to recruit the type of talent that wins national titles."

Penn is in good hands, too, with Glen Miller, the man who took over for Dunphy.

Miller and his Quakers got the better of Dunphy in this one.

"Our day will come," Dunphy promised.

And when it does, the focus won't be solely on him. He's made his return to the Palestra. That part of his coaching legend is history. Even in defeat, he enjoyed it. But he's glad it's over.

Contact staff writer Jim Salisbury

at 215-854-4983 or jsalisbury@phillynews.com.