By Paul Gotham
If the St. Joseph’s Hawks make a magical run this season, fans will need to look no further than Saturday night’s victory over George Mason as the turning point.
Missing two of the their top six players, on the road after nearly knocking off a ranked team in their previous outing, the Hawks put on a gutty performance beating George Mason 84-80 for their first win in Atlantic 10 play and tenth overall.
“It was different than the other nine wins,” said St. Joseph’s head coach Phil Martelli during this week’s media conference call. “There was an excitement in the locker room and on the bus ride home.”
Playing without a pair of forwards, Ronald Roberts Jr. (6-8) and Isaiah Miles (6-7), the Hawks outrebounded the Patriots 31-26 and overcame a halftime deficit to even their conference record at 1-1.
“At the end of the day when you start to look at the standings in this league you’re going say what separated that team from this team?” Martelli continued. “You’re going to see that it’s road wins. Some of the most powerful programs in this country on Saturday went on the road and didn’t get a sniff of a win. It’s tough. It’s really, really difficult to win on the road at George Mason.”
On Wednesday, St. Joseph’s led by nine with 6:23 at then No. 19 UMass. Roberts Jr. went to the bench early in the second half with back spasms, and SJU faded late in a 66-62 loss.
“The coach in you wants to believe that they are separate entities, but they’re not,” Martelli said of preparing for Saturday’s game with Wednesday’s loss fresh in his players’ minds. “Wednesday lingered with our team.”
Halil Kanecevic shouldered the responsibility and scored a game-high 23 while pacing the Hawks to a win with seven rebounds.
“He’s very, very passionate about winning,” Martelli of his senior forward “He knew what buttons to push with each of his individual teammates.”
With Roberts Jr. on the bench, Kanecevic, who came in averaging 9.8 points and a team-leading 4.4 assists, changed roles from facilitator to post scorer. His basket with 1:20 remaining all but sealed the victory. After grabbing an offensive rebound and kicking it out to reset the shot clock, Kanecevic used a dropstep in the lane and finished a reverse layup at the rim. SJU led 76-69.
“He is obviously a terrific player,” Martelli stated. “The biggest thing about him is that he is very, very cerebral.”
Saturday, Kanecevic put his energy level on display, something that came as no surprise to Martelli.
“That’s what he does every day in practice. That’s nothing because it was Saturday night or because he was playing 40 minutes. It’s easy being excited when you’re playing 40 minutes. You can come outside of yourself. That’s what you get every day in practice… His energy has been contagious.”
St. Joseph’s returns home Wednesday to play Duquesne. The Dukes also went 1-1 in the opening week of conference play. Duquesne coach Jim Ferry knows Kanecevic well. Ferry coached at Long Island University when Kanecevic played his freshman year at Hofstra.
“He’s someone who is very difficult to prepare for,” Ferry commented. “You got to stay really disciplined on him or else he’ll pick you apart in a lot of different ways.”
Miles, who suffered a concussion, is doubtful for Wednesday’s game. Roberts Jr. is a wait-and-see situation. He will need to see how his back responds to treatments. Roberts Jr. averages 14.6 points and 7.4 rebounds a game for the Hawks. Miles plays nearly 12 minutes a game and scores four while grabbing two rebounds.
St. Joseph’s plays Penn in a Philly Big 5 game Saturday and hosts Rhode Island next Wednesday before returning to the road to face Richmond and Dayton.
The Hawks recovered from another painful setback earlier this season. After falling on December fourth to Temple in a Big 5 tilt, the Hawks lost by 30 three days later to Villanova. They won their next five.
As Martelli points out, Saturday’s win came at a critical point in the season.
“Quietly it came halfway through our season. That was our 15th game. We have 30 games that we know we are going to get, the 31st being the Atlantic 10 tournament. We’ll see who we are halfway through.”
Paul Gotham is the founder, owner, editor and lead writer at Pickin’ Splinters. Paul is the Communications and Media Director of the New York Collegiate Baseball League. He is a contributor at USA Today and member of the USBWA. You can follow Paul on Twitter @PickinSplinters.