By Paul Gotham
BROOKLYN – Tournament Most Outstanding Player Halil Kanacevic recorded his second double-double in as many days as the Saint Joseph’s Hawks defeated the VCU Rams 65-61 to claim the 2014 Atlantic 10 championship.
Kanacevic netted 11 points on 5 of 10 shooting and pulled down a game-high 14 rebounds.
“It’s truly an honor to come in here and win three games this weekend,” St. Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli said. “That was fierce competition. Neither team gave an inch.”
After not trailing for the first 27 minutes of the game, the Hawks erased a six-point second half deficit for the first A-10 title since 1997.
Kanacevic finished back-to-back jump hooks in the lane, and Lagston Galloway drilled another dagger three as St. Joseph’s knocked off the Rams for the second time this season.
“I had a time where I was frustrated and my emotions almost got the best of me,” Kanacevic stated. “These guys (Galloway and Ronald Roberts Jr.) did a great job just keeping me in it. So it’s not always me. We’ve got a very good group of personalities here.”
Galloway’s trey at the 2:28 mark gave St. Joseph’s a lead it never surrendered. The first-team all-conference guard netted a game-high 19 on 5 of 8 shooting behind the arc. He scored 68 points during the three Hawks’ wins at the Barclays Center.
“Coach and this team, they put a lot of trust in me to take the big shot,” Galloway commented. “I just wanted to step up for my team. I knew it was a critical time and I had the ball in my hand, so I just wanted to make a play, and the ball fell. I didn’t get close to pushing off so nobody would disagree with that. Definitely a good way to knock down a shot for the team.”
Galloway went to his left and created space at the top of the arc and finished over the outstretched arms of Rob Brandenberg who paced VCU with 18 on 7 of 15 shooting.
“I just wanted to try to make him put it on the ground, put the ball on the floor because he’s a great three‑point shooter,” Brandenberg stated. “I played the drive, he stepped back, made a tough shot.”
The Hawks stretched the lead to five when Galloway beat a double team at half court and calmly fed DeAndre Bembry who found Roberts in the paint for a flush.
Bembry finished with 13 points and eight assists while committing just two turnovers. His dunk coming out of a timeout at the 12:37 mark stopped a 6-0 VCU run.
Bembry took an inbound pass from the sideline pivoted and with two dribbles made his way to the rim.
“I really think that the play of the game for us that got us back, we were a little skittish, was his dunk,” Martelli noted. “I’m not sure that you’re going to see a better dunk.”
Playing against a defense which leads the nation in turnovers forced, St. Joseph’s committed 12 miscues for the game and just four in the second stanza.
“Having really a fourth ball handler in Halil, allowed us to stem the tide,” Martelli said. “I think we could have done even a better job with it… We dribbled the ball probably too much at times, and we really didn’t get the second pass involved.”
Roberts also notched a double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds and joined Galloway and Kanacevic on the all-tournament team.
Graham scored 15 for VCU. Brandenberg, Graham and Briante Weber represented VCU on the all-tournament team.
Despite committing eight turnovers, Saint Joseph’s never trailed in the first half.
Galloway and Bembry paced the Hawks to their largest advantage of the first twenty. Galloway put bookends around the under-12 media timeout with a pair of 3-pointers. Bembry hit a turnaround jumper from the block and followed with a feed to Roberts for a flush and a 21-13 St. Joseph’s lead.
VCU trimmed the lead to two late in the stanza.
Galloway drilled another three before the break for the 28-24 halftime score.
VCU lost for the second time in as many years in the A10 final. Last year the Rams fell to Saint Louis.
It’s not really any more difficult because of what happened last year. It’s just you want to win this year in the present moment.
“Thirteen teams came up here to win, all but two of them were left today at one o’clock,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said. “We felt like we had a really good opportunity to be the team that won it, but St. Joe’s obviously had something to say about that and they played better than us.”