By Ryan Lazo
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — The Saint Joseph’s University Hawks had extremely high preseason expectations for a team that returned numerous starters from last year’s squad which narrowly missed qualifying for the NCAA Tournament.
Even the Atlantic 10 Conference coaches felt the same way, naming the Hawks as the preseason favorites to win the league. However, Saint Joseph’s has not lived up to their high billing, dropping head-scratching games and not playing up to their talent level.
But as A-10 Tournament play begins, the slate is wiped clean and the Hawks Langston Galloway nailed two clutch free throws with 1.4 seconds remaining to give Saint Joseph’s a 58-57 lead.
And a full-court pass that bounced off glass and into the hands of Isaiah Philmore gave Xavier some hope but his lay-in attempt rattled in and out of the orange cylinder as Saint Joseph’s captured the 58-57 victory over the Musketeers at the Barclays Center.
“The players deserve all the credit. They worked their tails off on Tuesday and Wednesday for this game,” Hawks coach Phil Martelli said after his team’s win. I asked them to empty their tanks so they can say they gave it everything they had.”
That’s exactly what the underperforming Hawks did.
The Hawks could have laid down with just over 11 minutes remaining in the game. Xavier’s Brad Redford had just nailed a 3-pointer, one of four he nailed on the night, to put the Musketeer’s up 44-36 — their largest lead of the night.
But this Hawks team refused to let Xavier take control. Instead, behind the play Halil Kanecevic who scored seven quick points, Saint Joseph’s went on an extended 13-1 run to take a 50-45 lead.
“I scored, but Ron made two great passes to me. I got a great screen for the 3-pointer,” Kanecevic said deflecting his importance. “I was in the right place, right time. My teammates had confidence in me that I could make a shot. And I made it.”
Meanwhile, Xavier was playing in just their third first-round A-10 game in their history, putting them in an unfamiliar position. Even more unfamiliar was seeing Philmore’s shot rattle out of the rim, ending Xavier’s chances of advancing or qualifying for the NCAA Tournament.
The Musketeers have qualified for eight consecutive NCAA Tournaments, but they entered the A-10 Tournament needing to win out in order to qualify after a disappointing season themselves. However, the loss was still stunning.
“Tough way to lose. It’s a bitter pill to swallow,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “To bow out early in your conference tournament, especially to end it like that.”
But it was the Hawks who made all the plays to help send Xavier packing early.
It was Martelli’s bunch who dished out 15 assists to just nine turnovers. And most importantly, it’s his Hawks who move on to face Virginia Commonwealth University tomorrow afternoon.
Saint Joseph’s had already lost to VCU once this season, a 92-86 overtime loss, but it’s time to throw that one out the window. The Hawks have already seen what the havoc defense can do as the Rams’ forced them into 20 turnovers.
“We’re going to go into Times Square, stand in the street and try not to be hit by a car,” Martelli said of how his team will prepare for VCU. “That’s what it feels like. Hopefully we come out tomorrow and don’t get hit by a car.”
But Martelli is being modest.
There is a reason his Hawks’ squad was picked as the preseason A-10 favorites. With players like Langston Galloway, who scored a team-high 14 points on 4-of-6 shooting, Carl Jones and Kanecevic, Saint Joseph’s has the weapons to take down any team.
Throw in the C.J. Aiken and Ronald Roberts, two bigs who make the Hawks’ front court intimidating to any opponent and one can start to get a whiff of a possible upset bid tomorrow.
“I got an interesting email. It said, ‘current circumstance does not determine your future. It only determines your starting point,'” Martelli said. “We came here to win a game to have a chance to play another.”
All it takes is a couple of more victories and many Saint Joseph’s fans will forget all about the disappointing regular season. Galloway said the team’s mindset is simple.
“All I can say is bring on tomorrow,” Galloway said.”
While tomorrow brings with it havoc of VCU, the Hawks are riding high with confidence after knocking off Xavier. The Hawks have not won an A-10 title since 1997, but with a win over VCU tomorrow and the talent loaded on their roster, the Hawk can soar in this tournament.
Ryan Lazo can be reached on Twitter @RMLazo13