PHILADELPHIA (2/18/01) - On the verge of its first national ranking in four years, the St. Joseph's Hawks finally seemed to have hit a wall. Playing nearly flawless basketball since Christmas, SJU was in a battle with Fordham, a middle of the pack Atlantic 10 Conference team. And the battle seemed to be slipping away. After recovering from a seven-point first half deficit in a game that featured 13 lead changes and 10 ties, the Hawks let a five-point lead (70-65) with 5:47 to play, slip out of its hands. The score was tied, 72-72, with 2:55 on the clock, and Fordham was heading out on a break, with momentum on its side. As the packed Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse crowd held its collective breath, "the kid" stole the show - literally. "The Kid", aka freshman Jameer Nelson, recorded back-to-back steals, his fifth and sixth (a career high) on the day to lead SJU on a 10-0 run and an 88-78 win. With the win finally came respect, as the Hawks cracked the ESPN/USA Today Top 25 later that night, entering at #24. It marked the earliest date a SJU team has made an appearance in a national poll since the 1965-66 team, which was entrenched in the Associated Press Top 10 the entire season, finishing fifth in the final poll. Nelson's first steal was pure magic. Looking more like a cornerback than a point guard, the Chester native glided across court to intercept a long pass. He then drove down and hit junior Marvin O'Connor for a three-pointer in the left corner to put SJU up 75-72. It was O'Connor's first trey on the night after seven misses, one coming in the exact same spot on the previous Hawk possession. "Jameer's steal on that 2-on-1 was the play of the game," said Hawk coach Phil Martelli on the play. "Then coming down and finding Marv and hitting that big three." "It was a great steal," stated O'Connor. "I was wide open, and it is just that confidence we have been talking about all year. They push me to shoot the three. I am open. I am the leader on this team, I take the shot and knock it down." "But it is not just me,' he added. "Other guys have been hitting big shots all year, it is just what we have been doing." "He wants it," added Martelli on O'Connor. "I think there is a difference between wanting to take a big shot and willing to miss a big shot, He is willing to miss a big shot, nothing wrong with that." "I was aware of that play," stated Nelson on the steal. "He was already ahead of me. I used my football skills, being a safety." Nelson then stole the ball on the baseline on the Rams' next possession, and was fouled driving to the hoop. He calmly sank two free throws to extend the SJU lead to five, 77-72. A three-pointer by O'Connor, the game's leading scorer with 20 points, put the Hawks' ahead, 80-72. Nelson then drained two more from the charity stripe to end the run and the game, for all intents and purposes. "Someone is going to step up," said Nelson. "We have a lot of guys on our team that can step up. We have been stepping up as a team - period- all year." The game started out with the Hawks opening up a 12-6 lead in the first four minutes. With Fordham guarding the perimeter, SJU worked the ball inside to Damian Reid, and the Hawks' big man, who has been struggling of late, scored six of his 12 points in the early stretch. The Rams then went on a 20-7 run over the next seven minutes to take its first of three seven point leads, 26-19, with 8:58 to play. Jason Harris, who has had trouble with is shot this season, drained his first two three-pointers, both from well behind the line, in the run. Luckily for St. Joe's, Harris would only connect on 1-of-8 treys the rest of the way. "I just had a feeling," explained Martelli on the Hawks slow start. "We were a little flat. You should not need artificial stimulants, but our students were not there like they had been in the past few games. You could feel it." The teams would trade baskets over the next two minutes. Following a Na'im Crenshaw "three" that cut the margin to four, 32-28, Steve Canal, who was involved in an altercation with O'Connor in last year's slugfest, fired home a ferocious dunk. Canal, however, held on to the rim a little too long, resulting in a technical foul. Nelson converted the technical, and then Crenshaw (14 PTs, 7 REBS, 3 AST, 0 TO), who was the only bright light in an otherwise dim first half, drained a deuce off a nice feed from O'Connor to cut the Fordham lead to 34-31. A bench technical on Fordham on the next possession made it a two-point game (Nelson FT), then O'Connor was fouled by Harris on a 3-pointer and hit all three free throws to put SJU ahead, 35-34. The lead went back and forth the final three minutes with the half ending in a 42-42 tie. The Hawks placed five players in double figures led by O'Connor. Bill Phillips had another terrific all-around game, tallying 15 points, nine rebounds and six assists. Nelson, who had the big steals, also dealt a game-high eight assists to go along with his 13 points. Fordham, 12-12, 4-8 in A-10 play, was led by Jeff McMillan (12 rebounds) and Teremun Johnson's 16 points. It was the Rams' three-point shooting, or lack thereof, that eventually did them in. Fordham hit just 4-of-23 from behind the arc. SJU also limited the Rams top gun, senior guard Bevon Robin, to just seven points on 3-of-9 shooting. SJU, which won its seventh straight and 15th of its last 16, boosts its' A-10 lead to two games over second place Xavier. The Hawks are now 21-4 overall, matching their best start since the 1985-86 season, and 11-1 in the conference. The win also give SJU a perfect 10-0 record at the Fieldhouse on the year, with just UMass (Feb. 27) left for an undefeated home season. Now they will take their national ranking on the road, to face the Dayton Flyers on Wednesday night (7:30 PM/WPEN 950 AM) in one of the toughest places to win in the A-10, the UD Arena.
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