SAN DIEGO, CA (3-15-01) -- Before the game, they defended their turf. In the second half, they were forced to defend their lead. And throughout the game, they simply defended. With their shots not dropping and a swarming Georgia Tech press hounding them up and down the court, a St. Joseph's team known more for its offense cranked up their own defensive intensity down the stretch and hung on for a 66-62 victory at Cox Arena in the first round of the NCAA West subregional. "This team has been tremendous defensively all season long, but there has been no attention paid to it because they score 80 points a game," observed Hawks coach Phil Martelli after St. Joseph's had limited the Yellow Jackets to shooting 37% from the field. "Today we had our lowest point total of the season (66), but we won because they never quit playing defense." The Hawks (26-6) were led by Marvin O'Connor's 21 points, eight of which came in a key stretch in the second half after Georgia Tech (17-13) had turned a 17-point halftime deficit into a tight game that was threatening to slip away from St. Joseph's. O'Connor's backcourt mate, freshman sensation Jameer Nelson, countered an uncharacteristic six turnovers with 13 points, 8 assists and seven rebounds. The gamesmanship began even before the National Anthem, as Georgia Tech and St. Joseph's players exchanged heated words during opening warm-ups after several Yellow Jackets began their stretching exercises in the middle of the Hawks' layup drills. Tempers flared, and a chip began to form on the shoulders of the Atlantic 10 regular season champions. "We are not going to back down from anything," said Nelson during the postgame press conference. "They were on our side of the court, warming up and so we asked them nicely to please move down to the other side of the court and they refused to. So a couple of guys on our team took it personal and started a couple of arguments." "There was a lot of talk about 'ACC this' and 'ACC that,'" added O'Connor. "It was like they didn't even acknowledge that the Atlantic 10 existed. They probably don't even know where St. Joseph's is located. We took that real personally." With the line drawn in the sand, St. Joe's and Georgia Tech commenced the first half looking like anything but teams playing for bragging rights. Multiple turnovers and sloppy play were the order of the day, and after a layup by Tech's Shaun Fein made the score 11-10 in favor of the Hawks, the two teams went nearly two and a half minutes before scoring again. Two free throws by senior Frank Wilkins, the lone holdover from the Hawks' last NCAA Tournament team, kicked off a 15-0 run by St. Joseph's that blew open the game and left the Yellow Jackets frustrated and a bit flabbergasted. By the time Tony Akins dropped in two free throws to stop the bleeding, seven minutes and thirty-five seconds had run off of the clock, and it was nearly nine minutes before they scored a field goal, a three-pointer by Akins with 4:19 left in the first half. The half arrived with the Hawks holding serve at 41-24, largely on the strength of success in two areas they had deemed critical during their planning sessions. "We really wanted to stay behind Alvin (Jones, the Yellow Jackets' All-ACC center) and allow him to take jumpers and hook shots, because we figured the odds would be in our favor. What we really wanted to do was not give help from (players guarding) Akins and Fein, because they can kill you from behind the arc." The plan succeeded, as the Hawks held Akins and Fein to a combined 1-for-5 from three-point territory, and Jones did not attempt a shot in the first half, missing all three of his free throw tries. For the game, Georgia Tech was a woeful 3 of 18 on three-point attempts, a figure made only slightly less abysmal when compared to the Hawks' own 4-for-23 performance. In the second half, however, Jones started to get on track, and his efforts infused life into the previously listless Georgia Tech attack. Trailing, 46-37, Jones cleaned up a miss by Fein with a monster dunk to close the gap to seven with his first points of the game. After a basket by Nelson, Jones scored over Alexandre Sazonov for a bucket and then threw down an alley-oop from Darryl LaBarrie to pull the Yellow Jackets to within five, at 48-43. With Jones seemingly poised to take over, however, Nelson outfoxed him, driving the lane and leaving the ball for Sazonov in such perfect position that Jones was forced to commit his fourth foul. With over eleven minutes left to play, Tech coach Paul Hewitt was forced to sit his big man for a spell. "What you saw out there was, quite simply, a group of kids who are not yet ready to turn in their uniforms," said Hawks' coach Phil Martelli after the game. "I hate to use coachspeak, but they played hard." Following the game, St. Joseph's watched as top-seeded Stanford ran away from UNC-Greensboro. Questions were raised as to the next matchup, and whether or not the Cardinal's early exits each of the past two years could benefit the Hawks in their attempt to return to the Sweet 16. "I hope it does get into their psyche a little bit, to be honest with you," said Martelli. "But I have no idea how to play into that and take advantage of it." "Besides," added Martelli, "like Marvin (O'Connor) said earlier, when they were losing in the second round the last two years, we were watching them from home." And for at least one more game, the Atlantic 10 will be playing while one of the ACC watches from home.
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