PHILADELPHIA (3-8-01) - Call it a bump in the road, perhaps, or a hiccup in the middle of a beautiful aria. Whatever the metaphor, St. Joseph's loss to cross-town rival La Salle last Saturday night in both teams' regular season finale lingered throughout this week as a stinging reminder of what can happen if the Hawks don't bring their "A" game to the table. What had been a remarkable stretch run for St. Joseph's became just a tiny bit less so, and the loss may have served as a wake-up call of sorts. This afternoon, the Hawks struggled again to pull away from the pesky Explorers before a decisive 10-0 run with three minutes to play allowed St. Joseph's, the top seed in the Atlantic 10 Tournament, to salt away their quarterfinal matchup by an 82-74 final margin. St. Joseph's will next play Massachusetts at 7 PM Friday night in the semifinals of the tournament. The Minutemen reached the semis by virtue of their 79-58 victory over St. Bonaventure in the afternoon's second game. The other semifinal matchup will pit Temple, a 76-63 winner over Dayton, against George Washington, who upset 2nd-seeded Xavier, 83-74. The Hawks were led by freshman sensation Jameer Nelson, who narrowly missed a triple-double in his first collegiate postseason game while posting career highs in points (23) and rebounds (11) to go with 8 assists and only three turnovers. Nelson also converted all eight of his free throw attempts and was 6-8 from the field, including three of four three-pointers. St. Joseph's also received 16 points from Marvin O'Connor, while Damian Reid posted a season-high with 15 and Nai'm Crenshaw added 13 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 assists off the bench. Their unselfish play also led to a remarkable 19 assists on 23 field goals. Rasual Butler scored a game-high 28 points for La Salle, and Victor Thomas added 19 for the Explorers. The Hawks (25-5, 15-2 Atlantic 10) led by a 34-29 score at halftime following a quick 6-2 spurt over the final minute of the first half. On Saturday night, La Salle had utilized an 11-2 run at the outset of the second half to set the stage for their upset victory, but the Hawks were ready this time, carrying their run over into the second period by scoring the first five points of the half to extend the lead to double digits at 39-29. They threatened to put the game out of reach several times throughout the second half, but La Salle (12-17, 6-12) clawed their way back each time. With 3:43 remaining, and St. Joseph's holding a comfortable 65-58 lead following the second of Nelson's three treys, Nelson was called for a reach-in foul while guarding the Explorers' Julian Blanks. Crenshaw, the Atlantic 10 Sixth Man of the Year, was assessed a technical foul for arguing the call, and Blanks made all four free throws amidst a somewhat chaotic scene to cut the Hawks' lead to three, at 65-62. Following a timeout, St. Joseph's could not convert and received a scare when O'Connor cushioned the fall of seven-footer Alex Sazonov with his head while both were trying for a rebound. O'Connor, who had hit the deck hard of his own volition earlier while diving for a loose ball, remained down while both teams headed downcourt. La Salle took advantage of the numbers by feeding Butler for a wide-open three to tie the score at 65-65 with 3:02 left to play. However, as he has all season long, Nelson stepped up at crunch time and delivered for the Hawks. With O'Connor still woozy and struggling from the field to begin with (6-16, 2-7 3-PT), Nelson hit his third and final trifecta, kicking off the 10-0 run that put the game safely out of reach. After the trey, Nelson sank two free throws and drove the lane before kicking out to Crenshaw, who had an open look for a three. Two more Nelson free throws closed out the run, and by that point just over a minute remained and most, if not all, of the fight had fizzled out of the Explorers. For Nelson, the Atlantic 10's Rookie of the Year who has been named National Freshman of the Year by Sports Illustrated, CBS.Sportsline.com, and ESPN's Dick Vitale ("Diaper Dandy" of the Year), the career highs were a nice accomplishment, but he placed a greater value on putting another notch in the "W" column. "Career highs are great, but I'd rather have the win. A career high without winning, that means nothing." When asked if there was anything Nelson could have done better this afternoon, Hawks' coach Phil Martelli deadpanned, "I was a little disappointed that he didn't have two more assists to get the triple-double." He then went on to add, in a more serious tone, "But that will happen sooner or later."
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