Hawks let out a collective sigh of relief

Posted: March 17, 2008

Filled with anxiety, the St. Joseph's players were watching the NCAA Selection Show on television in the living room of Phil Martelli's home in Media when they heard their coach shout out a resounding "Yes" from the den.

"Everyone was wondering what's going on," senior Pat Calathes said. "And then we saw our name pop up on the bracket, and we started jumping up and down."

Martelli saw St. Joe's name slotted into a bracket in the East seconds before his players because of a delay between feeds to the two televisions. It's just as well because the Hawks coach was an emotional wreck all day after spending a sleepless night still fretting over the loss to Temple in Saturday night's Atlantic Ten Conference championship game, and not convinced his team would be an at-large selection.

So his relief didn't come a moment too soon.

For the first time since they made a run to the cusp of the Final Four in 2004, St. Joseph's is in the NCAA tourney. Seeded No. 11, the Hawks will go against No. 6 seed Oklahoma (22-11) at 7:10 p.m. Friday in Birmingham, Ala. If St. Joe's can knock off the Sooners, the winner between No. 3 Louisville and No. 14 Boise State would be next.

It marks the fifth time Martelli has taken a St. Joe's team into the Big Dance in his 13 years as head coach. The Hawks are 6-4 in the NCAA under Martelli and have advanced past the first round in three of their previous four trips.

St. Joe's appeared to be a tourney lock when the Hawks bolted out to a 15-5 start, but they fell out of the tourney projections when they lost five of seven games. They got back on the bubble by beating then eighth-ranked Xavier in their home finale March 6, and probably clinched a berth by defeating Xavier again in the A-10 semifinals.

"It was real nerve-racking," junior center Ahmad Nivins said about watching the bracket show. "It's a blessing. It's a wonderful thing, and I'm glad to be a part of it. I'm still shaking. It's the best feeling I've had in a long time."

Few if any of the Hawks felt a stronger sense of relief than Calathes, who didn't even want to say how down he would have been if he'd completed his career without playing in an NCAA tourney game.

"It's great," Calathes said. "It's been my dream forever to play in the tournament, and my senior year I finally got it. It was our goal to make the tourney, but we want to finish up with more than just this. We'd definitely like to win some games."

Calathes said he's seen bits and pieces of Oklahoma play, and he's already checked out the Sooners' statistics.

"I think we have a good shot against Oklahoma," he said. "They're definitely a good team, but I've seen some of the teams they've lost to."

The Sooners won seven of their last nine games. They were blown out by Texas in the Big Twelve Conference tourney semifinals. They have one of the nation's top freshman frontcourt players in power forward Blake Griffin, who averages 14.8 points and 9.2 rebounds a game. They also have a 6-11 center, Longar Longar, averaging 11.8 points and 5.7 rebounds. Oklahoma is ranked No. 29 in the RPI with a schedule ranked No. 13 in the country. The Sooners are 6-8 against teams ranked in the RPI top 50. But the Sooners have an early-season loss to Stephen F. Austin and average just 69 points a game.

The lone St. Joe's player to see any action in an NCAA tourney game is fifth-year senior Arvydas Lidzius, who played as a deep substitute in the 2004 win over Texas Tech.

Martelli said he didn't want to watch the Selection Show in the same room with his players because he didn't want to infect them with the emotional turmoil that gripped him.

Contact staff writer Ray Parrillo at 215-854-2743 or rparrillo@phillynews.com.

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