Deflating loss for Saint Joseph's

Posted: March 11, 2014

BY NOW, after 60 college basketball games in every sort of arena and setting, identities usually are set.

And then, there are this season's editions at Saint Joseph's and La Salle.

Each was outplayed by a lesser team on their home court on Senior Day; most recently, St. Joe's, by La Salle, yesterday, 71-63.

It was La Salle's third win in its last four games, but a Senior Day loss to George Mason on Thursday laid barer than ever its most damning shortcomings: lack of scoring and an unproductive perimeter defense, fatal flaws on a guard-heavy team. Usually.

It was St. Joe's second loss in a row, especially deflating since a run of eight wins in nine games had vaulted the Hawks safely into most NCAA Tournament brackets. They came unhinged by La Salle's box-and-one defense designed to stop Langston Galloway, and they were undone by their terribly shallow rotation.

For a change.

St. Joe's (21-9, 11-5 A-10) squandered a No. 2 seed in the Atlantic 10 Tournament, which begins Wednesday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. More significantly, the Hawks might have been playing for a share of the the A-10 title, which they hadn't won in 9 years. First-place Saint Louis nearly lost to Massachusetts as St. Joe's tipped off; so, for all the Hawks knew, the title was on the line.

They fell into the fourth seed, which still gives them a bye in the first round; but, assuming they win at 2:30 p.m. Friday, could push them into a semifinal matchup with Saint Louis. The Hawks' NCAA dream might die with a semifinal loss, which would be their third in their last four games.

The worst of those losses would be the one they suffered yesterday.

"I apologized to my team because I didn't have them ready," said St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli, referring to La Salle's box-and-one. He added: "Senior Day was too emotional for some guys today."

Neither of those assertions is entirely true.

The Hawks led, 16-10, nearly 10 minutes into the game, so any Senior Day emotional imbalance should have exhausted itself. They simply lost focus, didn't hit a field goal in the last 7:58 of the first half, committed five turnovers in the middle of the first half and let La Salle close the gap.

"I don't think it was Senior Day. We were just playing too fast. We were anxious to play, because we had an intense practice [Saturday]," said senior forward Ronald Roberts. "We were right there, to win [the conference] or finish second. That was the whole goal all year."

La Salle might be an underachieving, .500 ballclub, but the Explorers went to the Sweet 16 last season. They remember what blood smells like, and they know how to gut a foe.

Yesterday's foe has remarkable balance among four of its five starters but a dreadful lack of depth. St. Joe's has two intriguing big men, seniors Roberts and Halil Kanacevic, and they are productive, but they largely are without identity.

None of this will change in the next 5 days.

"We are what we are," Martelli said.

They are sometimes efficient but sometimes unstable.

La Salle switched to a 3-2 zone for St. Joe's last possession of the first half. DeAndre Bembry obligingly threw a soft lob pass to the corner, where D.J. Peterson intercepted it to preserve a 33-23 halftime lead.

So, as teams prepare to stop St. Joe's, all they need to do is put somebody up Galloway's snout? Hardly; Galloway finished with 27 points and hit 7 of 14 shots.

Meanwhile, La Salle, the No. 8 seed, which plays at noon against St. Bonaventure, provided a surprisingly redoubtable effort.

Forward Jerrell Wright scored 17 points and pulled 12 rebounds, his most productive game in a significant win for the Explorers all season. Senior guard Tyreek Duren, a Neumann-Goretti grad, bade Philadelphia farewell with a season-high 27 points.

"You can't want to win any more than these kids do," said La Salle coach John Giannini. He seemed baffled, too.

Yesterday's events could prove beneficial for both teams.

St. Joe's beat a ranked UMass team last month in the middle of its signature run, a run that clearly left the Hawks a bit self-satisfied. The loss to La Salle could provide a measure of stricture for St. Joseph's.

La Salle had lost six of eight. The win could provide a measure of hope for a dangerous Explorers team . . . which beat No. 3 seed George Washington and nearly beat both No. 2 seed VCU and Saint Louis.

The league is not that good. Neither La Salle nor St. Joe's is that bad.

Either could be playing for 3 or 4 days in Brooklyn.

Then again, both might be playing for 2 hours in Brooklyn.


On Twitter: @inkstainedretch


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