And even though the Hawks lost to the defending national champions, 83-68, in a West Region semifinal at the San Jose Arena, you could make the argument that this was the best season in school history. When you consider the history on Hawk Hill, you realize the special nature of this team.
And this team was in the best tradition of St. Joseph's - diving for loose balls, making last-second shots, winning just about every close game. These Hawks (26-7) were fearless. They won the Atlantic 10 championship. They were ranked 12th in the final Associated Press poll. They made it to the Sweet 16, where they ran into a team that is as well-coached as it is talented.
``I hope they win it all,'' St, Joe's coach Phil Martelli said. ``We had some lapses mentally in the first half. We didn't give them our best bolt. We played like fans. When we started to compete in the second half, you could see our level of focus increase.''
Kentucky was just too fast, too big, too strong, too good. The Hawks had one less turnover (nine) in the first half than they had in their two first-round games in Utah combined. Every offensive possession was an adventure. The Wildcats were, as always, relentless. There were few open looks, even fewer easy baskets.
``It just wasn't enough,'' Hawks point guard Rashid Bey said. ``That's all. The intensity they bring was so high it was unbelievable. They were right there on every play.''
And, very quickly, weary becomes tired becomes exhausted. Whatever chance the Hawks had was gone when the 'Cats shot 55.6 percent in the first half while they shot only 37.5 percent. The Wildcats scored from close in, mid-range and the arc. They were everywhere.
Kentucky (33-4) led, 39-27, at the half. The Hawks were facing the longest 20 minutes of their lives - and played those 20 minutes like they wanted 20 or 200 more. They matched UK basket for basket. They had Kentucky coach Rick Pitino begging for calls. They got within 72-64 in the last four minutes. And they played to the buzzer.
Ron Mercer, who was 6-for-8 at halftime and had 13 points, was unguardable at times, even by Dmitri Domani, a k a ``The Club''. Mercer's spin move in the open floor midway through the half would have made Barry Sanders proud. He finished with 19.
Cameron Mills, who scored half his season's total of 142 points in the last six games while shooting 61.9 percent overall and 64.5 percent from the arc, took three shots from the field and two from the line in the first half. If he hit the rim, it wasn't evident. He finished with 19 points in just 20 minutes.
Every time the Hawks would get a breather and call a play after a timeout, Kentucky would switch to a zone defense and disrupt the rhythm. St. Joe's was simply trying to push a giant steel ball up a mountain.
``They came out ready,'' Hawks sixth man Terrell Myers said. ``We didn't compete at all. We were spectators. We laid down for them.''
He was being harsh on himself and his team. They could have laid down. It would have been the easy way.
After a little thought, Myers said: ``I'm the type of person once it's over, it's over. I wouldn't have wanted to go out any other way, playing in the Sweet 16. I have no regrets.''
The 1961 Hawks made it to the Final Four. In 1963, St. Joe's was in the Final Eight. The 1981 Hawks upset No. 1 De Paul and made it to the Final Eight as well. But this St. Joe's team, picked for fourth in the A-10 East after losing seniors Mark Bass, Will Johnson and Reggie Townsend, tied the school record for wins despite playing the toughest schedule in school history. This team won the A-10 when the league received five NCAA bids for the first time. This team won because it was coached brilliantly by Martelli and because every last player understood his role.
``I made sure the team took time to thank each other,'' Martelli said after the ride of a lifetime had finally ended. ``What they have done will never be forgotten. I believe in what we're doing and I believe in these players. I don't know if it's possible to duplicate the feeling around the school in the last few weeks.''
But they'll try. It is their way.
When this decade started, St. Joe's basketball had bottomed out. As the decade nears the end, the future has rarely looked brighter. It won't be like this every season. It can't be, not when you consider the budget differences between St. Joe's and many of the state universities with which it competes. But they have found a winning formula and a winning coach again on Hawk Hill. Losing to Kentucky in the Sweet 16 doesn't change anything.
``I realize it's over,'' Domani said. ``It's just real sad that I can't play with this team anymore.''
Seniors Domani (15 points), Nemanja Petrovic, Myers and Bob Del Vescovo played their final games, but help is on the way. And the foundation is as solid as a rock. Bey (26 points, five assists, four rebounds, six turnovers, three steals) was brilliant in defeat. Freshman guard Arthur ``Yah'' Davis had a stomach problem in the first half, but still managed 13 points.
``I'm going to take about two weeks off and then get ready for next season,'' Davis promised.
Said Petrovic: ``I just feel empty right now, that's it.''
Utah coach Rick Majerus came out to watch the second half. He has seen this all before. The Utes survived a first-game war with Stanford, winning, 82-77, in overtime last night. His team was toasted by Kentucky in the Sweet 16 last year. Kentucky likely will prove war is hell - again.
The Hawks did not die against the force that is Kentucky. Their flame was just sort of extinguished. They didn't roll over like so many before them. They never stopped playing with passion. They just came upon a team with better players.
The game is about players, but it's also about teams. Nothing Kentucky did will ever change that St. Joe's was a team in the best sense of the word. Only its season, one for the ages, was done. What it did will never be forgotten.