Those of us who have followed the Atlantic 10 Conference this season have likely been a bit overbearing about the depth of quality teams in this conference, and perhaps I've been as guilty of that as anyone. However, on Thursday night, when Xavier took the court against Saint Joseph's in a 7-vs-10 matchup just for the opportunity to get to the tournament quarterfinals, I had to shake my head at the quality of players participating in this opening round contest.
Game #9-510: Saint Joseph`s Hawks vs. Xavier MusketeersMarch 14, 2013 6:30 pm
For Xavier, this was anticipated to be a down year, after they lost all five starters from last season's Sweet Sixteen squad. Still, after they put 117 points on the board in their opener against Fairleigh Dickinson, then clamped down defensively on Butler in their second game of the season, it became clear that you'd be unwise to underestimate the Musketeers. They did struggle at various times throughout the season, although they had some impressive efforts in recent weeks, beating Memphis and Saint Louis, and holding a large lead against VCU before falling apart in the final minutes. While still a relatively young and inexperienced team, Xavier did feature the league's newcomer of the year in freshman Semaj Christon (aka "Backwards James").
Saint Joseph's seemed to the consensus pre-season pick to win the A-10, which to me was a slight against Saint Louis, among others. Nevertheless, the Hawks did seem to be on the rise, returning everyone from last year's NIT participant, which prominently featured sophomores. As those kids grew to be juniors, it was natural to expect them to improve further. For whatever reason, the Hawks didn't seem to be able to demonstrate that much improvement this year. They picked up a November victory over Notre Dame, but four months later, that still ranks as the highlight of their season. They had a good shot to win at VCU, but let that one get away, and really weren't competitive on the road after that. As the season reaches its conclusion, I would think that the Hawks would be fortunate just to get back to the NIT. Nevertheless, there's some good talent on this roster, which you notice in these one-and-done situations.
The Hawks jumped out to an early 5-0 lead, but Xavier quickly bounced back to take a 6-5 edge. The lead changed hands several times throughout the first half. Brad Redford, Xavier's three-point specialist, was finding the range from distance, but also scored on a driving layup, which gave X its largest first half lead at 20-16. The Hawks' defense tightened at that point, and when SJU's Langston Galloway converted a three-point play off of a pretty back cut in the final seconds of the half, the Hawks went to the break with a 28-25 advantage.
This game was my first opportunity to see Saint Joseph's in person. As such, it was my first exposure to the Saint Joseph's Hawk mascot.
Flapping his wings throughout the entire game, The Hawk took to the court during each timeout making figure eights and continuing to flap his wings for all to see. I was initially amused by this, but when we reached the second half, the thrill was starting to wear off. I can imagine Saint Joseph's Big Five rivals have long since found that act to be tiresome, especially when the wings are being flapped to celebrate a Hawk victory. I shouldn't complain about such a longstanding tradition though - it's unique to Saint Joseph's and I hope they enjoy it. The Hawk's antics overshadowed even the powerful D'Artagnan.
In the second half, Xavier started to break away. After a closely contested opening to the half, Travis Taylor and Christon combined to go on a 10-0 run for X. Galloway stopped the run with a three-pointer, but Redford immediately answered with a superhoop of his own, giving the Musketeers a 44-36 lead.
A media timeout then marked a change in momentum, with Halil Kanacevic scoring nine points during a four minute 14-1 SJU run that changed the entire tone of the game. Even in their down years, I have always appreciated Xavier's toughness and aggressiveness, but they demonstrated none of that in those four minutes. The Hawks were beating the Musketeers to every loose ball, and simply outworked X in these key moments of the contest. That was a strange sight to see.
Xavier did bounce back though. Redford hit another three-pointer, then after a nice power move by Xavier's Isaiah Philmore turned into a three-point play, Justin Martin came up with a steal, then got to the line for two free throws that put X back on top by one. After an exchange of free throws, and a turnover by the Hawks' Ronald Roberts Jr., Xavier had the ball and a one-point lead with 48 seconds to go.
Shooter Flatch once warned the boys, "Don't get caught watching the paint dry," and Chris Mack probably should have conveyed a similar sentiment during his timeout at this point in the game. X stood around for too long running the clock down, and by the time they got ready to run their offense, they couldn't get a look at the basket. The resulting shot clock violation was a really bad turnover to take, and set up Saint Joseph's to make a winning play. Langston Galloway did just that, driving the ball into a crowd of Musketeers and drawing a foul with just under two seconds remaining. Galloway made both free throws, although the first one provided a high amount of drama before deciding to drop through. SJU led 58-57, and Xavier had 1.4 seconds for a miracle finish.
Coach Mack channeled Coach K, and drew up the Christian Laettner play. The problem was that Justin Martin, playing the quarterback role of Grant Hill, overthrew his receiver by about six yards. The ball slammed off the backboard, and Philmore emerged from the resulting scrum all alone with the ball about seven feet from the basket. Obviously, he didn't expect to find himself in this situation. Philmore tossed up a soft teardrop that clanged off the back of the rim and bounced away.
It is said that The Hawk Will Never Die. That, I suppose, is yet to be determined, but for this season at least, the Hawk lives for at least another day.
SAINT JOSEPH`S 58, XAVIER 57
SAINT JOSEPH`S 18-12 (8-8) -- C. Jones 1-10 8-8 11; H. Kanacevic 3-10 4-4 11; L. Galloway 4-6 4-4 14; C. Aiken 4-6 0-0 8; C. Wilson 3-4 0-0 8; R. Roberts 3-8 0-3 6; P. Ndao 0-0 0-0 0; D. Quarles 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 18-44 16-19 58.
XAVIER 17-14 (9-7) -- S. Christon 3-14 4-4 10; T. Taylor 6-9 4-6 16; I. Philmore 2-6 1-2 5; B. Redford 5-9 0-0 14; J. Martin 2-4 2-2 7; J. Robinson 1-1 2-2 4; D. Davis 0-2 1-2 1; L. Amos 0-0 0-0 0; E. Stenger 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 19-45 14-18 57.
Three-point goals: SJU 6-18 (C. Jones 1-6; H. Kanacevic 1-4; C. Aiken 0-2; L. Galloway 2-3; C. Wilson 2-3), XU 5-11 (B. Redford 4-7; J. Martin 1-2; D. Davis 0-1; S. Christon 0-1); Rebounds: SJU 25 (R. Roberts 8), XU 25 (T. Taylor 9); Assists: SJU 15 (H. Kanacevic 6), XU 9 (S. Christon 4); Total Fouls -- SJU 17, XU 18; Fouled Out: SJU-H. Kanacevic; XU-None.