"It's been a tough season, but it's great to finish up with a win on Senior Night, especially against St. Joe's," said La Salle senior Victor Thomas, who scored 26 points during an inspired effort.
The City Series battle was the final regular-season game for both teams, who may meet again Thursday in the conference tournament. St. Joe's (24-5, 14-2) enters the tourney as the regular-season champion. For the Explorers (11-17, 5-11), who would face the Hawks again if they defeat Fordham in Wednesday's first round at the First Union Spectrum, the victory was a reprieve from a long season as they ended a four-game losing streak.
"Our record should be reversed, really," said La Salle coach Speedy Morris, whose team has defeated St. Joe's four times in the last five meetings. "I think we lost more buzzer-beaters than any team in the conference. It's been frustrating and disappointing, but this is nice. These kids never quit. We did everything we had to do to beat the best team in the conference."
While expressing relief with the victory, both Thomas and Morris could not help but express their admiration for the Hawks' Marvin O'Connor, who single-handedly carried his team within an eyelash of a comeback win by scoring 18 of his career-high 37 points in the final minute.
"It seems like he had 50," Morris said. "I have to look at the tape. Marvin was unbelievable."
O'Connor shot 12 for 22 from the field and hit six of 12 three-point shots. His 37 points were the most scored by a St. Joseph's player since 1983, when Tony Costner scored 47 against Alaska-Anchorage.
With O'Connor on fire after the Explorers built an 80-70 lead with 1 minute, 9 seconds to go, La Salle could not afford to miss a free throw down the stretch. The Explorers didn't, hitting all 10 foul shots in the final 38 seconds. Rasual Butler, who scored 25 points, and guard Julian Blanks each hit four of them. Blanks, a junior, played one of the finest games of his career, scoring 20 points with seven assists and only one turnover in 40 minutes.
Although the Hawks' Jameer Nelson struggled to score, the superb freshman point guard broke a 25-year-old single-season school record when he fed Frank Wilkins for a second-half basket for his 177th assist of the season. The former standard of 176 was set by Matt Guokas Jr. in the 1965-66 season. Nelson, who leads the A-10 in assists, had seven to run his total to 180.
The Explorers sent a message that they were not going down easily by shredding the Hawks during an 11-2 run to open the second half and take a 45-39 advantage. Matters looked worse for St. Joe's when Nelson limped into the sidecourt huddle, appearing to favor his right ankle.
But Nelson continued playing, and Bill Phillips, who scored 18 points, went on a scoring flurry that regained the lead for St. Joe's. The 6-foot-10 forward nailed a three-pointer from the top of the key, dropped in a layup after taking a nice feed from O'Connor, then dropped in three free throws to recover the lead for the Hawks, 47-45.
But the Explorers got some unlikely scoring from Rasheed Quadri and James Jordan, who combined for 14 points and eight rebounds, and served notice to the Hawks that this was going to be a rough night by building a 60-52 lead. That forced St. Joe's to play catch-up the rest of the game.
The Hawks had won 18 of their previous 19 games and were trying to match their longest winning streak since 1979-80, when they won 11 straight. But they abandoned the fundamentals that have served them so well through this magical season. Even though they had a decided advantage in height, the Hawks were outrebounded, 43-41. La Salle had 16 offensive rebounds - four by Thomas and three by Jordan - and only eight turnovers. The Explorers even solved one of St. Joe's major strengths - defending the perimeter - by shooting 9 for 19 from three-point distance.
"We weren't on top of things, and that's the coach's fault," St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli said. "We came with less than our 'A' game, so we leave with a loss. We fell off our edge, but we'll get it back."
Ray Parrillo's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.