March 30, 2005
NEW YORK - The 2005 men's basketball season will close early next week with only two of about 325 Division I teams being able to say they cut down the nets in their final games.
The white-hot Saint Joseph's Hawks, winners of 13 of their last 15, get their shot Thursday to be one of those select two teams. They'll face South Carolina in the National Invitation Tournament final in Madison Square Garden at 7 p.m.
"The opportunity to win your last game of the year goes to so few teams," said SJU head coach Phil Martelli Wednesday morning. "This is a unique opportunity, and one our team is cherishing and welcoming. They are anxious to see if they can be labeled champions."
The Hawks (24-11) advanced to the final thanks to a calm, sturdy performance in Tuesday's 70-58 semifinal win over Memphis. South Carolina (19-13) ran past Maryland, 75-67, in the nightcap to earn its trip to the championship game.
The Gamecocks are a quick team led by their sole double-figure scorer, 6-7 senior forward Carlos Powell (16.4 ppg), who also paces the squad in rebounding (6.6 rpg).
"They play with tremendous energy," Martelli said. "[Coach] Dave Odom is as classy as a guy as there is in this business. Carlos Powell plays the way seniors are supposed to. We're going to have to figure out some way, shape, or form to limit Carlos Powell. He will be the focal point of our defensive game plan."
As usual, the Hawks will try to keep the game at their pace -- in "fits and starts," not "flurries," as Martelli put it -- though Odom said his team would be ready should the game slow down. Martelli also expects the Gamecocks to press the ball and try to trap it in the backcourt.
For his part, Odom said it would be a mistake to try to contain Saint Joseph's snipers Pat Carroll and Chet Stachitas on the perimeter, as that could open up too many easy opportunities inside. "We've got to guard them inside the three-point line and make them beat us from three," he said.
Odom added that he was surprised by Saint Joseph's height and by what he considers to be an overlooked part of the Hawks' effort. "There are a dozen teams I'd prefer to play to St. Joe's," he said. "Their defense is the most underrated and untalked about part of their game."
He also praised Martelli, saying, "I don't know that there's a coach in the country more connected to a team, or a team more connected to its coach, than St. Joe's."
One more game. One opportunity to cut down the nets.
"Both teams deserve to be here," Odom said. "Both teams have played their way here. Both teams are worthy of a championship."
"Both of these teams are getting a chance to play for a championship," Martelli said. "Championships are forever. Championships are forever. There can't be any feeling like that in sports, to be called a champion."