PHILADELPHIA (3-9-01) - Enough was enough. For a St. Joseph's team that has had an uncanny sense of whether or not the impossible is impossible this season, last night they knew when it was time to pull the plug. After Jonathan De Pina calmly dropped in two free throws with 1.5 seconds remaining, Hawks' senior Erick Woods retrieved the ball along the baseline, preparing to heave a full-court baseball pass for some type of miraculous ending. Instead, Marvin O'Connor, St. Joseph's offensive wunderkind who had done all he could to carry his team into the Atlantic 10 championship game with 26 hard-fought points, signaled for the ball. Woods tossed it inbounds to O'Connor, who gently placed it on the floor. Game Over. Massachusetts, behind 27 points from Monty Mack and a tenacious and often ferocious defensive attack, would live to play another day. 75-70, Minutemen. Essentially, symbolically, O'Connor and the Hawks were putting this game, regular season, and conference behind them, and preparing to move on to bigger things. For St. Joseph's (25-6, 15-3 in the Atlantic 10), those bigger things will surely include the NCAA Tournament, where they will expect to find themselves when the brackets are announced Sunday afternoon. For UMass (15-14, 13-5) and head coach Bruiser Flint, an SJU alum, that includes a shot at Temple in the league championship game, with the winner locking up an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The game was a slugfest, often resembling a prize fight, and indeed Mack and O'Connor, both first -team All-Atlantic 10 performers, frequently played the figurative part of pugilists. Mack scored 15 points early in the first half as the Minutemen sprinted to a 28-12 lead. Punch. O'Connor, held scoreless until the 6:56 mark of the first half, scored 15 over the last seven minutes to send the Hawks into the locker room with a five-point advantage, 37-32. Counterpunch. Mack fouled Hawks' sixth man Nai'm Crenshaw hard in the first half, drawing a technical foul from an irate Crenshaw, who managed to get the T even after being initially restrained by Alex Sazonov. Punch. O'Connor drew a foul on Winston Smith in the second half, who responded to the call vehemently enough to garner himself a technical foul as well. Counterpunch. Mack drained a three-pointer to tie the game at 37-37 as the Minutemen erased the halftime deficit. Punch. O'Connor came down the court and coolly knocked down a three. Counterpunch. And so it went. The Hawks seemed on the verge of showing the hustling, scrapping Minutemen the door when O'Connor dropped in a 25' trey out of a timeout with seven minutes remaining. At that point, the wheels appeared to be coming off of the UMass cart, and many in the building were seeing shades of the last time these two met, when St. Joseph's turned a 19-point deficit into a 15-point victory. Punch. Not so fast. Mack nailed a trifecta at the other end of the court to kickstart a 16-6 run that vaulted the Minutemen into the lead and forced the Hawks to play catchup the rest of the game. Counterpunch. That all you got? The Hawks would climb back to within one point, at 69-68 on free throws by Bill Phillips and Sazonov, but UMass was able to hang on down the stretch. After the game, the Hawks felt that perhaps they have gotten away from what had made them so successful this season. "We have really been enjoying our success, and maybe we enjoyed it too much," said O'Connor. "I think maybe we've lost a tad bit of focus on what we're doing. We have to get back to where we were and jump on teams early. The last few games we've had to fight back. It's might be difficult for us psychologically, because we're not used to losing." The Hawks will get a chance to work on that starting Sunday, when the pairings are announced and they will know their first-round opponent. The Minutemen still have a bit of work to do if they want one as well.
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