By MIKE ANGELINA
Every member of the Saint Joseph’s Hawks will be guaranteed to get experience playing in the NCAA Tournament later this week. Instead of worrying about the at-large selection committee, the Hawks gave them no choice.
They received an automatic bid to the “Big Dance” with their Atlantic 10 Championship. The Hawks defeated No. 23 Virginia Commonwealth 65-61 to punch their ticket.
It completed a stretch of three wins in three days to claim a title in a league Head Coach Phil Martelli describes as top-five in the country. It also completed a rebuild from a program that had been dying to get back to the tournament the previous five seasons.
For some, it was their last chance to experience it before graduating. The trio of senior starters, Langston Galloway, Halil Kanacevic and Ronald Roberts led the entire weekend as they ensured they would not be denied a trip to the largest tournament in the country.
They were each honored by the league for their performance in the tournament. Galloway and Roberts were named to the All-Tournament team and Kanacevic was named Most Outstanding Player.
Martelli put it in their hands to win it. He played them for all 20 minutes of the second half, despite the group having tired legs, having played three straight days—each start time earlier than the previous one.
“The players remarked that they were playing for a championship,” Martelli explained. “I had to give them the best chance to win a championship”
With the score tied at 54 and 2:32 left, Martelli called a timeout and drew up a play for one of his seniors. Two seconds out of the timeout, Galloway buried a three to put St. Joe’s in front, a lead they would never look back on.
“Coach and this team, they put a lot of trust in me to take the big shot and I just wanted to step up for my team,” Galloway said. “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.”
Galloway also buried the game-winning shot against Dayton in the semifinals but it came with some controversy. Some had felt he pushed off the defender and a foul should have negated the basket.
Much like the Hawks being deserving of a tournament bid, there is nothing to argue about that shot.
“I didn’t get close to pushing off so nobody would disagree with that,” he pointed out.
A difference between this current team and previous Hawk teams that failed to get to previous tournaments is freshman DeAndre Bembry. The freshman was just that on Sunday afternoon, a difference maker. After being carried by their seniors all weekend—they accounted for 84% of SJU’s scoring yesterday, Bembry added 13 much needed points to be the fourth Hawk to reach double figures.
Bembry got the Hawks back on track twice when they were behind. Down by three midway through the second half, he put down a poster-worthy dunk, which Martelli identified as the turning point in the game.
“I really think that the play of the game for us that got us back, we were a little skittish, was his dunk,” Martelli explained. “I’m not sure that you’re going to see a better dunk.”
When the Hawks trailed with about three minutes left, he gave them the lead back by laying in a basket and hitting the ensuing free throw. Treveon Graham hit two free throws on the other end to tie it at 54.
The freshman got them in that position, and that’s when the senior Galloway finished it off. It represented the collectiveness of the Hawks’ squad, not being all about the seniors.
They’ve been working together as a group since June. They bonded on a European trip over the summer and have been united ever since—even when they were 4-4. Martelli even shut his twitter down because when they fell to .500 the world had ended, according to their fans.
“I couldn’t be happier for, not just the seniors, but the whole group,” Martelli said of his entire squad. “This group has been a group since June.”
With the addition of Bembry, a changed attitude, a more basketball-focused Kanacevic and a team hungry for a tournament berth, the team had a different approach to the season.
“When we got together in June, there was something different about the group,” Martelli said. “It was just different.”
A different, better attitude and a different, better result. The Atlantic 10 crown was their first since 1997, and only Head Coach Phil Martelli’s second at the helm.
The Hawks will now wait to learn their seeding for the NCAA Tournament, which will be announced at 6 p.m. this evening. It will be their first appearance in the tournament since 2008.
Postgame Press Conference: