Hawks nearly got it done

RON CORTES / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Langston Galloway loses control of the ball in final minute of the game under the pressure from UConn's Lasan Kromah.
RON CORTES / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Langston Galloway loses control of the ball in final minute of the game under the pressure from UConn's Lasan Kromah.
Posted: March 21, 2014

BUFFALO, N.Y. - The starters had played 195 of the soon-to-be 200 minutes, every minute of the second half. One more rebound and Saint Joseph's would have been 40 seconds, a few more smart plays and a few made free throws from winning a wonderful NCAA game with Connecticut.

Huskies star Shabazz Napier had driven the ball hard to the rim, but he was met by the wall the Hawks had put up all night. His shot came out and the ball was sitting there tantalizingly. Halil Kanavevic had pushed Huskies 7-footer Amida Brimah under the backboard. If Kanacevic touches a ball, he usually has it for keeps. This one was just out of his reach and fell into Brimah's hands. The freshman, who is going to be a star, made a wonderful move and dropped in short shot, got fouled and calmly hit a free throw to make a Hawks three-point lead disappear.

If the Hawks were going to win the game, it was going to have to be in regulation. Five more minutes were not going to help their chances. They played the OT, but the result was nearly set in stone and cemented when Kanavevic fouled out just 73 seconds into OT.

It was UConn, 89-81, but it was far more than that. It was a wonderful 40 minutes of basketball by both teams in regulation, a game SJU controlled for long stretches and seem to have won several times. In the end, it was 5 minutes too long for the Hawks.

"I loved coaching this team, and in a couple of days we will be able to look back [with pride]," coach Phil Martelli told his players in the locker room.

Kanacevic, who finished his career by filling up the stat sheet one final time, blamed himself for the missed rebound. But this season never comes close to happening without him.

"I did a horrible job boxing out the perimeter," Kanacevic said. "And he got an offensive rebound and got the and-one and I think that was a pivotal moment. We had it and I just let these guys down. I should have boxed him out better."

Maybe, but by his last game it was more important that he understood his team and himself.

"They're tremendous people," Kanacevic said of his teammates. "Forget about the basketball. Everybody is a tremendous player . . . I don't think I've been around a group of people my age that are so giving."

In the first half, the Hawks were even sharper in the northwest corner of New York than they were Sunday afternoon in the southeast corner. Buffalo. Brooklyn, facing one of the country's best fullcourt defenses in VCU, dealing with one of the best halfcourt defenses in UConn, no matter.

Combine confidence with skill, experience and preparation, you had a team that was playing about as well it can play at exactly the right time for it to be playing that way.

None of these Hawks had ever played in the NCAA Tournament. They reacted like it was just the next game. They were not staring, as their coach had cautioned them on Tuesday. They were just playing, moving the ball faster than the defenders and making the optimal play.

Martelli had told his team that they were "not playing the teams that hung the banners." They were instead playing a school with three national championships since 1999 and a team that was very good and played even better than that when it absolutely had to.

SJU freshman DeAndre Bembry played brilliant defense on Napier, who needed 22 shots to get his 24 points but also managed to get eight rebounds, six assists and three steals, team highs in every category. Martelli had told his players they had to stop one of UConn's three major scorers. They could not do it. DeAndre Daniels (18 points) was a killer in the second half. Ryan Boatright (17 points) was solid all game.

Most nights against most teams, St. Joe's wins. The Hawks played a winning game, just as they had played a wonderful season that culminated with that Atlantic 10 championship.

"Definitely a high-caliber game, going against UConn and their great guards," Bembry said.

The 3-minute NCAA Tournament timeouts were perfect for a team that is all about its starters, who have combined to score 5,591 career points and all 81 in this game.

You shoot 50 percent against the Huskies' defense, 67 percent for the first 16 minutes of the game, an incredible 1.3 points per possession as halftime beckons, you should win. SJU probably beats 60 of the 68 teams in the tournament with that game.

But the Hawks' 40-35 halftime lead did not seem to equate to how well they had played. And UConn has too much pride and too much talent and too much shooting (the 11 threes were about four too many).

"I felt like we had it won," said Hawks senior Ronald Roberts, who played with the kind of effort he showed from the day he appeared on campus. "We basically had controlled the whole game. They came at us."

And the Hawks came at them, none harder than the third senior, Langston Galloway. He had a game-high 25, became the second all-time SJU scorer (1,991 points) and was an exhausted fumble away from perhaps making the game-winner at the end of regulation.

"It's definitely been a journey," Galloway said. "We've been on so many ups and downs. The reason why I came here and the rest of these guys came here was to bring Saint Joe's back and get them back to this point."

It was clear back in November how much Martelli liked coaching this team. All you had to was watch him on the sideline. He was relaxed, comfortable and confident. When it ended, he was philosophical.

"Sometimes in life you don't really get what you want," Martelli said. "There are reasons that may be out there for anybody. I don't know why. But if anybody deserved to keep playing, these guys certainly did . . . It will be a long night tonight, probably a long weekend. Then we'll get each of these guys on their path to life. If it's the hardest thing they face, they've lived a blessed life."

Email: jerardd@phillynews.com

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