"We sat there like, 'Uh oh, this guy's in trouble. He's about to get it,' " Bembry's high school coach said, referring to Alie-Cox, the VCU forward. "Sure enough, he did."
If you weren't yet familiar with Bembry, Saint Joseph's 6-6 freshman forward made quite the introduction during Sunday's Atlantic 10 championship game. Composed, versatile and athletic, the 19-year-old has been labeled the missing piece, the near-perfect complement to a veteran lineup that has the Hawks back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008.
"He's never come here and been entitled to everything. He came here and said, 'What do you want me to do?' " St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli said. "The beauty is that [the seniors] looked around and knew what they wanted and they knew he was as close to the perfect piece as we could get."
That has certainly proved the case. A starter in all 33 games for St. Joe's (24-9), Bembry can score, pass, rebound and, perhaps most important, play great defense. Throughout a run that has helped validate the collegiate careers of a trio of tournament-hungry seniors, Hawks fans also have gotten a glimpse of their future.
"He's not really a freshman," senior forward Halil Kanacevic said. "He's a great player."
Logging the fourth-most minutes on the team (32.2 per game), Bembry's averages of 12 points and 4.5 rebounds each rank third on St. Joe's, the No. 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament's East Region. The Atlantic 10 co-rookie of the year's 32 steals rank second among the Hawks, behind only senior Langston Galloway, a first-team all-conference guard, who has 35.
Bembry often draws the toughest defensive assignment, freeing up the sharp-shooting Galloway to expend a bit less of his energy on defense and more on knocking down three-pointers. Both players are candidates to defend Connecticut star Shabazz Napier in tomorrow's second-round NCAA Tournament game, but even if Galloway has the assignment, Bembry said he will make sure to get at least a few possessions against the Huskies' All-America guard.
That's because Bembry takes as much pride in a steal as he does a dunk, a made jump shot or an assist, according to Chavannes, his coach at The Patrick School in Elizabeth, N.J. While in high school, Bembry defended players as tall as 6-10. "He just really has a passion about every part of the game," Chavannes said.
"That was just one of the things I learned early: Play defense or you're not gonna play," Bembry said.
Bembry grew up in Charlotte, N.C., where he first grew out his now oft-discussed Afro. During his sophomore year at Rocky River High, each player on the basketball team agreed to grow out their hair for the season. Bembry kept it, at least for a while. "And then I think it was one AAU trip I took, I cut it off and I didn't play too well," he said, smiling. "So I grew it back and I've just kept it since then."
The summer before his junior year, Bembry moved with his mother and brother to New Jersey, his mom's home state. He spent 2 years at The Patrick School, formerly known as St. Patrick's High School, where open gym sessions over the summer provided opportunities to compete against famed school alums like Kyrie Irving and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
"It'd usually be all of them on one team vs. us where if we lose, we've got to run," Bembry said. "Of course, we had to run a couple times."
Bembry signed with St. Joe's over Temple, the runner-up for his services. He also had scholarship offers from the likes of Providence and Miami. The opportunity for early playing time on Hawk Hill was a big factor. Upon his arrival to campus, he fit right in with the group.
"We've had guys in the past years that haven't been all in. He's all in," Kanacevic said. "He's got everybody's back. That's a huge part. I think that's better than the basketball part. I'll take the basketball part every single day of the week, but he's a great person."
There have been games during which the St. Joe's coaches will turn to each other on the bench and say, "He's a freshman tonight." But it's never for 40 minutes, Martelli said, only moments of a game. Bembry struggled offensively in Saturday's A-10 semifinal but made his mark on the defensive end, holding St. Bonaventure's leading scorer Matthew Wright to just six points on 1-for-9 shooting.
"Every time we would be in a timeout and I would say to him, 'They have to go to Wright,' he would look me dead in the eye and say, 'I got it,' " Martelli said. "And that's all I needed."
A day later, Martelli would reference Bembry's dunk against VCU as a turning point in the Hawks' first A-10 Tournament title since 1997. The Rams had just taken their first lead. Twelve minutes remained on the clock, and the game appeared headed in a direction not favorable for the Hawks.
Never one to hesitate on a chance to attack the rim, Bembry wouldn't deem Sunday's as one of his best dunks. "But the moment," he said, "the moment at the time definitely was."
On Twitter: @jakemkaplan