St. Joseph's continues on, while La Salle is done after playing to form

Posted: March 12, 2011

ATLANTIC CITY - The most wonderful gift that March can give a college basketball team is the power to absolve the sins of January and February. At this time of year, the regular season becomes just that - an ordinary prelude to the moments that truly will be remembered . . . one way or the other.

St. Joseph's and La Salle mostly have had seasons to forget, both in the Big Five City Series and in the Atlantic Ten Conference. Their stories were different - the Hawks are a very young team just learning the game, the Explorers a more talented team that failed to play to its potential - but the standings don't come with long explanations. The standings just stack the teams, and St. Joe's and La Salle found themselves deep in the stack, on merit.

Absolution time arrived, at least partially, for St. Joseph's on Friday in the quarterfinal round of the A-10 tournament, when the Hawks won their third consecutive elimination game. They upset Duquesne, 93-90, in overtime, giving coach Phil Martelli his 300th career win.

The postseason was briefly kind to La Salle, allowing the Explorers to make it to Atlantic City with a win at St. Bonaventure on Tuesday, but on Friday all the worst habits of John Giannini's team were on display, and the Explorers were outplayed badly by Temple, 96-76.

One season continues - with St. Joe's meeting Dayton in Saturday's semifinals, and one ends, almost thankfully, for the disappointing Explorers. March offers promise, but it makes no promises. You still have to win.

"It's always been about trying to win the next game," Martelli said. "I don't want to sell false hope. I'm not forgetting that we didn't win a game in January. But what we have done is what I believe every coach is charged with doing, and that's getting the team playing its best basketball at the end of the year. . . . People said, 'Did you lose the team? Did they quit on you?' That didn't happen. We just weren't good enough then."

The Hawks have three freshmen and a sophomore in their starting lineup and another freshman in the regular rotation, which is a tough way to play college basketball. Another two guys who got minutes in the regular rotation during the conference season aren't in school any longer. It hasn't been the smoothest of rides for the whole program, and there were plenty of what Martelli calls the "assistant coaches in the stands" who weren't that pleased with his performance, either.

"The day I got the job, [former coach] Jim Boyle said to me, 'I hope you're here long enough to lose 100 games.' And I thought that Bo was being a wacky dude," Martelli said, "but it made me realize that if you stay around long enough to lose 100 games, it means they're pleased with what you've done."

Martelli has been the coach for 16 seasons now, and lasted long enough to lose twice that many, but now he has 300 wins on the front side of the ledger. Friday's was a strange one, a run-and-gun air battle when he was trying to coach a deliberate ground game, but nobody throws back a March win for arriving by a side door.

"What a tremendous feeling to empty your tank, and then be able to say, 'Hey, we get a chance to play one more time,' " Martelli said.

Giannini and La Salle didn't get to say that. The Explorers shot well enough and rebounded well enough, but they also threw the ball away and allowed the Owls to score almost at will. Temple shot 62.5 percent in the second half to turn a 10-point halftime lead into a rout.

"I'll go to my grave scratching my head about this team defensively," Giannini said. "I mean, we spent 100 percent of our time in the spring and the fall on defense. If we were to go out and talk about how to cover a back screen, how to cover a down screen, how to cover a ball screen, our guys could put out a wonderful instructional videotape. But for some reason, in competitive situations it's a very low carryover."

The Explorers went out as they have played much of the season: bickering on the court, making poor decisions, and often looking on the court like five guys who just met near the water fountain.

Someone asked senior guard Ruben Guillandeaux whether he could pinpoint the overriding problems that have hampered La Salle.

"Focus and effort," he said quietly.

That's not the most pleasant coda for the long symphony of a season, but it was an honest one as the journey came to a discordant end.

Temple had a lot to do with closing things out for La Salle, and the Owls will be playing next week no matter what because their season earned them that right. Neither St. Joseph's nor La Salle could say the same thing as Friday dawned and even as it set.

One of them gets to keep going, though, and going and going if March chooses to see it that way. It's a tough month to lose, after all, but an awfully good one for finding wins and seeking absolution.

Contact columnist Bob Ford

at 215-854-5842 or and

read his blog at


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