ONCE AGAIN, THE GUARDS LEAD THE WAY
Courtesy: SJU Athletic Communications
By Tom Durso for sjuhawks.com SAN DIEGO, CA (3-15-01) -- Talk to the pundits, and they'll tell you that backcourt play is the key to NCAA Tournament success. Turns out the pundits actually get it right once in a while. The 9th-seeded Hawks, behind yet another set of superb performances by Marvin O'Connor and Jameer Nelson-stop us if you've heard that before-held off a late charge by No. 8 Georgia Tech Thursday afternoon to reach the second round of the Tournament with a 66-62 win. O'Connor, an All-Atlantic 10 first-team selection, led St. Joseph's with 21 points; Nelson, Sports Illustrated's Freshman of the Year, tallied 13 to go with 8 assists. Just as important, the two contributed mightily to a stingy perimeter defense that limited the Yellow Jackets, one of the country's best three-point-shooting teams, to a meager 3 for 18 from behind the arc. "This team has been underrated defensively, because we score so easily," said SJU head coach Phil Martelli, whose Hawks posted their lowest point total of the season. "The offense really wasn't flowing. I think we tightened up a bit when the game got tight, but we knew our defense would get us through. At this stage of the season it's just however we can do it." O'Connor and Nelson got the job done despite struggling a bit. O'Connor's 21 points came on 8 for 20 shooting, but the junior kept at it on both ends of the court. Midway through the second half, he drained consecutive three-pointers to take the wind out of Georgia Tech's sails, and followed up each bucket with a key rebound on the defensive end. Nelson then fed O'Connor for a thunderous dunk on the Hawks' next trip down the floor. "That eight points was a lot bigger than the 18" he scored in less than a minute against La Salle last week, O'Connor said. "The reason was the outcome of the game. That's my main focus, to win the game. That's what counts to everyone on our team." As for Nelson, the talented point guard appeared to develop a few jitters in the second half. A couple of ill advised passes ended up in Yellow Jacket hands, and the freshman concluded his afternoon with an uncharacteristic six turnovers. Yet Nelson was still cool enough to seal the SJU victory by scoring the team's final five points, on a jumper and three free throws, and by tapping a rebound on Georgia Tech's final possession out to halfcourt. All told, he logged a team-high 37 minutes and hit half of his tries from the field. Nelson downplayed his performance following the game, saying, "I just tried to take my time and find the open man. . . . We're not going to back down for anything." A win in the second round would set a school record for victories in a single season; the 1996-97 team also won 26 games. According to Martelli, Thursday's effort reflected a single-minded desire to continue playing. "It was just about a group of kids who weren't ready to have the uniforms collected," he said.