July 7, 2009
PHILADELPHIA - The Saint Joseph's men's basketball team was faced with a unique challenge in 2008-09, playing without its usual home court, as historic Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse was in the midst of a major renovation and expansion project. The Hawks played at their `home away from home,' the historic Palestra, and counted on the passion of the SJU fans to provide a true home court advantage.
The season had a number of highs and lows, and despite the squad missing the postseason, it was highlighted by an outstanding individual performance from senior Ahmad Nivins, who closed out his career as one of the best big men in Hawk history.
At the start, the Hawks could never seem to put together any kind of streak, alternating wins and losses. Saint Joseph's opened the year hosting Rider at the Wachovia Center, and opened on a winning note in its first-ever appearance in the public arena. SJU participated for the first time in the prestigious EA Sports Maui Invitational, falling to Texas and Alabama, but beating Indiana. Saint Joseph's scored wins over Lehigh, Towson and Cornell, but suffered losses to city rivals Villanova and Drexel in the early part of the season.
But as has become the norm under Phil Martelli-coached teams, the Hawks rose to the occasion with the start of the conference schedule. The new year came and SJU won seven straight and nine of 10 contests through the month of January to own a 12-8 record, and a 5-0 conference mark. Included in that span were seven conference wins, with two in overtime, including a triple overtime thriller over Rhode Island. Nivins showed his dominance and candidacy for A-10 Player of the Year honors as he posted 28 points and 20 rebounds in that victory, while also garnering 34 points and 16 rebounds in the OT win over Duquesne.
A loss at Dayton interrupted the winning streak, and, after victories over George Washington and UMass at the beginning of February, the Hawks would go on to lose five in a row. Back-to-back defeats at the hands of city foes Temple and La Salle as well as Saint Louis, UMass and Xavier dimmed the Hawks' postseason chances as SJU fell to 14-13.
After winning two of three games to close out the regular season, SJU hoped that it could make its traditional run through the Atlantic 10 Tournament. The fifth-seeded Hawks opened play in Atlantic City by defeating Charlotte, but then ran into nemesis Temple in the tournament for the third straight year, and suffered their fifth consecutive loss to the Owls to end the year at 17-15.
The Hawks' inconsistency plagued them all year long, as did the lack of outside scorers to take the burden off Nivins. Senior guard Tasheed Carr helped the cause, scoring 14.3 points per game, while averaging 22 points in his final four games to earn All-Big 5 Second Team honors.
Through it all, Nivins continued his dominance and was called the "best player in the city and the conference" by his coach. That prediction came true as the senior was named the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year, becoming the third Hawk in the past six years to win the conference's top award. Nivins, who averaged 19.2 points and 11.8 rebounds, was crowned the best in the city as well, earning the Geasey Award as the Big 5's MVP. The senior became only the second A-10 player to lead the conference in field goal percentage for three straight seasons, while setting the school record with a career mark of 62.7 percent. Nivins would earn Associated Press Honorable Mention All-America honors to join a distinguished list of Hawks who had achieved that recognition. He also became the 28th Hawk to be chosen in the NBA Draft, as the Dallas Mavericks selected him with the 56th overall pick.
Junior Garrett Williamson earned selection to the Atlantic 10 All-Defensive Team while classmate Darrin Govens was the Hawks' third double-figure scorer, averaging 12.5 points. Forward Idris Hilliard was one of SJU's Most Improved Players in `08-09 and joins Williamson and Govens as the team's returning starters for next season.
Saint Joseph's went 7-6 in "home" games at the Palestra but will return to the friendly confines of its on-campus building when it opens the Michael J. Hagan `85 Arena at the start of the 2009-10 season.