March 14, 2008
ATLANTIC CITY, NJ - A little tough love from coach Phil Martelli has Saint Joseph's on the verge of returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time in four years.
Martelli was blunt with his team on the eve of the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament, telling them to win or pack their bags. There was going to be no NCAA or even an NIT bid if the Hawks didn't run the tournament.
Guess what, Saint Joseph's has rolled over three straight opponents, and No. 10 Xavier became the latest victim on Friday night, falling 61-53.
Pat Calathes scored 24 points to lead the way and Saint Joseph's held top-seeded Xavier to a season-low point total in the process.
"I'm telling you if we had lost any one of these last three games we were going home for good," Martelli said. "If that put a little knot in their stomachs, good, because I've had a knot in my stomach trying to figure out what the right message was to deliver was, and it worked with this group."
Fifth-seeded Saint Joseph's (21-11) can lock up its first NCAA tournament berth since 2003-04 on Saturday night in the championship game.
"All year long we've been breaking our huddle with 'One, Two, Three, Championship!" Martelli said. "Now we're 40 minutes away."
Despite the loss, the top-seeded Musketeers (27-6) are all but guaranteed a spot in the NCAA tournament when the selections are announced on Sunday.
"Winning 27 games I know it has put us in a good position," Xavier coach Sean Miller said. "Our goal all season has been to get back to the tournament and once we get their to fight like crazy to advance."
Ahmad Nivins added 15 points for the Hawks, whose tough man-to-man defense limited Xavier to 37 percent shooting from the field, including only one basket outside the paint.
Josh Duncan had 11 points and Jason Love added 10 points and nine rebounds for Xavier, which was 1 of 14 from 3-point range.
"We had a day today that all teams experience," Miller said. "We just didn't shoot the ball very well."
The Hawks, who dominated Fordham and Richmond in the first two rounds of the tournament, took control with a 15-0 run that bridged the end of the first half and the start of the second, putting them ahead 35-20.
Calathes had a 3-point play and a 3-pointer as Saint Joseph's scored the final 10 points of the opening half. The senior forward also hit three straight 3-pointers in the second half to short-circuit every run by Xavier.
Calathes was more impressed with the Hawks' defense against Xavier, which was averaging 76 points and which had not had less than 55 (against Arizona State on Dec 15) in any game.
"There's not just one player on that team," Calathes said. "They have five guys that can go out and score 20 points on you any night. We just strapped it up and did the best we could."
The Musketeers only threatened once in the closing minutes, drawing to within 54-49 with 1:15 to play when Duncan made two free throws to cap an 8-1 run.
Xavier's pressure forced Saint Joseph's to call a time out, but Calathes took the ensuing inbounds pass and dribbled the length of the court for a dunk that all but iced the game.
Saint Joseph's held Xavier scoreless in the final 4:57 of the first half to take a 30-20 lead. Rob Ferguson, who had 11 points, started the run with a jumper and a layup in transition. Calathes ended it with a three-point play and a 3-point field goal, the later coming with 2.8 second to go.
The 20 first-half points were a season low, and it marked only the fifth time this season that Xavier trailed at the half. What made this one special was that the Musketeers didn't have an outside game. All eight of their baskets were on layups.