Jan. 13, 2007
by Joe Greenwich
In the early fall of 1996, no one could have predicted what lay ahead for the Saint Joseph's men's basketball team. Anyone who tried would have given the same answer: trouble. The Hawks were coming off a trip to the 1996 NIT Finals, but lost the school's all-time leading three-point shooter (current Hawk assistant Mark Bass), a Second Team All-Atlantic 10 honoree (Reggie Townsend) and the conference's leading rebounder (Will Johnson) to graduation. There were three promising newcomers, including freshman guard Arthur "Yah" Davis, but asking players with no collegiate experience to lead SJU to the next level seemed a little far-fetched in the preseason.
Far-fetched? Certainly. Unlikely? Probably. Impossible? Well, 26 wins, an Atlantic 10 Championship, and a trip to the NCAA Sweet 16 later, the Hawks proved that nothing is impossible when the right mix of players come together under the right kind of coach at just the right time. Phil Martelli and the 1996-97 Hawks put Saint Joseph's basketball back into the national spotlight with a season to remember. A decade later, we take a look back at the last Hawk team to win the Atlantic 10 Championship.
The season started ominously enough with a 29-point thrashing at the hands of Duke in the Preseason NIT. The Hawks recovered by winning three straight, including a 67-64 win over #21 Tulsa in early December. Sixth man Terrell Myers hit the game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer, the first of two Hawk buzzer-beaters to qualify as CNN's "Play of the Day." After losing to a Top-10 Villanova squad and East Carolina, the Hawks took home the Pepsi-Oneida Bingo & Casino Classic in Green Bay, WI. Yah Davis was named MVP of the first in-season tournament won by the Hawks outside of Philadelphia in over a decade.
As the conference slate began, the Hawks went into Amherst and defeated Massachusetts on the road for the first time since 1988. Fans and pundits alike took notice after the Hawks proceeded to defeat St. Bonaventure in double-overtime and lose a heartbreaker against Rhode Island, one of the league's top squads. That game proved to be a rallying point for the 7-4 Hawks, who would tally just three more losses for the season. A four-game winning streak ended with a loss at the Fieldhouse to archrival Temple, which then kick-started a five-game streak that left the Hawks 16-5 before their second contest with the rival Owls, this one on the Temple campus. In the final SJU-Temple game to be played at McGonigle Hall, the Hawks hit a school-record 16 three-point field goals over coach John Chaney's vaunted matchup zone. However, late free throws sealed the win for Temple, 64-62. That would be the last Hawk loss for five weeks.
SJU reeled off five straight wins to close the regular season at 21-6, the squad's best regular season record in 11 years. The Hawks followed up their spectacular season by winning three games in three days at the Spectrum to take the 1997 Atlantic 10 Tournament championship. Junior point guard Rashid Bey was named the Tournament's Most Outstanding Player as the Hawks knocked off Rhode Island for the second time in three tries, 61-56. The Hawks earned a #5-seed in the West Region of the 1997 NCAA Tournament, their first trip to the NCAA Championship since 1986.
Saint Joseph's took off for Salt Lake City and a date with the Pacific University Tigers in the first round. The Hawks, led by Bey's 22 points, cruised to a 75-65 victory. Awaiting the Hawks in the second round were the Big East champions, the Boston College Eagles. Despite being dominated on the boards and shooting 14-of-43 from outside the arc (the 43 attempts set an NCAA Tournament record) and just 8-of-23 from inside, the Hawks managed to scratch out an 81-77 overtime victory over the Eagles. Bey tallied 23 points, while Davis added 21 of his own. That win sent the Hawks to San Jose, CA for a regional semifinal tilt with the defending national champion University of Kentucky.
In that game, SJU saw its 10-game winning streak come to an end at the hands of the Wildcats, 83-68. Saint Joseph's trailed for the entire game, but managed to trim the Kentucky lead to single digits in the final minutes. Unfortunately, the Hawks weren't able to close the gap completely before time expired. Bey scored a postseason-high 26 points for the Hawks in the contest, while senior Dmitri Domani poured in 15 in his final game as a Hawk. Bey was named to the All-West Region Team for his performance in the tournament.
Finishing 26-7, the 1996-97 Hawks received the school's first national ranking since 1973 and were ranked #12 in the final Associated Press poll of the season. Among the team's accomplishments included the Atlantic 10 Regular Season and Tournament championships as well as multiple "Team of the Year" honors. The squad also reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1981. Finally, the squad's 26 wins matched a school record that would later be eclipsed by the 2003-04 Hawk team, a team that had quite a season of its own.
Individually, the Hawks did not go unheralded. Phil Martelli was named the Atlantic 10, District, and Eastern College Coach of the Year. Rashid Bey was named First Team All-Conference and received the A-10's Most Improved Player award. Arthur Davis made his way onto the Atlantic 10 All-Rookie Team, while Dmitri Domani was Second Team All-Conference and took home the conference's Defensive Player of the Year award. Finally, Terrell Myers was named to the All-Conference Third Team.
When asked about the 1996-97 team, head coach Phil Martelli immediately pointed out the senior leadership that was present on the squad.
"Terrell Myers, a guy who went on to be All-League, was willing to come off the bench rather than start," Martelli said. "Dmitri Domani was the first of the fierce perimeter defenders that we have been able to attract to our program. Nemanja Petrovic did all the small things to help the team, and Bobby DelVescovo was a walk-on who had tremendous leadership abilities. It was a team that got better as the year went on and played with an air of confidence that stemmed, I think, from the year before, going to the NIT Finals. Rashid Bey obviously was an All-League player, and Arthur Davis was a brilliant freshman on that team, but the thing that sticks out is still the senior leadership."
While the 1996-97 team's achievements may have occurred ten years in the past, Hawk fans still look back fondly on the magical ride that spanned from November of 1996 through late March of 1997. The enduring legacy of the team is perhaps best articulated by the man who led them.
"It is a team that will be remembered with the greatest moniker that you can have as a team," Phil Martelli said, "and that would be as a champion."