PHILADELPHIA, PA (2-7-01) -- The Student Body was there in force, starting with a pep rally in the center of campus and marching in force to the Fieldhouse. The Drum was there, back after a long hiatus. Even one of the most famous Hawk teams in school history was there, the 1980-81 team that upset #1 DePaul in the 1981 NCAA Tournament was there, celebrating its 20th Anniversary. And the current Hawks were there - and did not disappoint! In the most meaningful game on Hawk Hill since SJU battled UMass in the final regular season home game of the 1996-97 campaign for sole possession of the Atlantic 10 East Division, the Hawks downed #24 Xavier, 79-76, and now sit atop the conference with an 8-1 league mark. "I think that the quality of the game speaks to the quality of the league," stated Hawk coach Phil Martelli after he watched his squad move to 18-4 on the season. "I think that the spirit and enthusiasm that was brought by our students and our fans is what makes college basketball great." This was a game for the ages. Both Xavier, 17-4, 8-2, and SJU went toe-to-toe for 40 minutes, neither blinking. The Hawks led throughout most of the contest, extending the lead to five or more points on four separate occasions, only to have the Musketeers close the gap. "I told the team that this was not a one-punch fight," explained Martelli. "That you had to play the 40 minutes. You can not go out and jump around because you make a play early in the game because this would go 40 minutes and it went every second of 40 minutes." Finally, with the Xavier ahead 69-68 with just under two minutes to play, the Hawks seemed to break through for good. First, Marvin O'Connor, the Hawks' candidate for A-10 Player of the Year, connected on two free throws, his eighth and ninth in a row on the night to put SJU ahead 7-68 with 1:54 remaining. Then the stellar SJU guard, who led all scorers with 29 points (6 rebounds) drove hard to the basket, laying the ball in to extend the margin to three points. Unfortunately, O'Connor took a hard spill on the play, injuring his thigh, and had to come out. He is expected to be ready for the team's next game. Emerging center Alexandre Sazonov, the only Russian sporting corn rows in Division I basketball, swatted away a shot by Xavier's Player of the Year hopeful, David West (13 PTS, 7 REBS), on the next possession. It was one of three Sazonov blocks, upping his total to 41 on the season, 9th best in SJU history. "West is a hard fighting dude, and Damian and Alex both made him know that they were out there," added Martelli. The next possession was worth the price of admission. Jameer Nelson, who tallied 15 points and dished eight assists without a turnover, held the ball at the top of the key for 25 seconds before blowing by Musketeer freshman guard Romain Sato (14 PTS) for a runner in the lane to put SJU ahead, 74-69, with 49 ticks on the clock. Nelson then added two free throws 12 seconds later to extend the lead to seven, 76-69, and cap the decisive 8-0 run. "I just stalled until there was 8 seconds left (on the shot clock), and I took Sato with my left hand and put it through my legs, he was on my left side of my body. And I shot a little floater." explained Nelson. SJU gave the X-men life though, hitting just 2-of-4 free throws as the Musketeers slowly crept back. A three-pointer by Lionel Chalmers (10 PTS), with nine seconds to play, made it a one-possession game, 79-76. The ever reliable Bill Phillips (13 PTS) then threw the ball away on the ensuing inbounds play, giving Xavier a shot at sending the game into overtime. But SJU, the best defensive team against the three-point shot in the A-10, came up strong. Frank Wilkins rejected the Musketeer attempt for his third block of the game, the biggest of his career, to seal the win. "Lot of emotions shown by me, which I really don't do," stated Nelson. "But I felt that I had to do that for this game because it was such a big game. There is no way you can hold your emotions in." The fans showed their emotions as well, running onto the court in waves to celebrate the Hawk win. "Last year maybe when we got excited we let the game get away from us," stated O'Connor. "We are alot more mature and understanding on what we have to do to win the game." "Hopefully we will be ranked, but if we are not, we just have to play basketball," stated Nelson on the team's mindset. One step at a time for the 2000-01 Hawks. The team will take a four-game win streak to Olean, NY for a road game against St. Bonaventure on Saturday, a team SJU defeated 104-97 in overtime at the Fieldhouse last week.
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