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Rhode Island’s Upset Bid

March 1, 2004 Columns No Comments

Special Game, Special Season

by Phil Kasiecki

KINGSTON, R.I. — The stage was set. 7,616 screaming fans in the sold-out Ryan Center, on Senior Day at Rhode Island, with undefeated St. Joseph’s in town. The doors opened earlier than usual for the fans, an hour and a half before the game instead of the customary hour in advance.

The Hawks’ 57-55 victory over host Rhode Island had the feel of a tournament game from start to finish. Signs all over the arena made light of what was at stake in a building where the Rams scored perhaps their biggest win last season, a last-second 58-57 victory as Brian Woodward stole the ball from Hawk big man Dwayne Jones and put in the winner as time expired. The signs ranged from “Not In Our House” to “Just Say No To 26-0” to signs that made light of the game being on ESPN2 and Dick Vitale (who loved the atmosphere of the game) being present. One particularly talented artist drew a rendition of the recent Sports Illustrated cover that had Hawk senior guard Jameer Nelson on it, with “25-1” in big numbers across the sign. Not surprisingly, chants of “overrated” came about near the beginning as well.

“It was a great ball game,” said Rhode Island head coach Jim Baron. “It was a great game to be on national TV, a great game for the Ryan Center, and I want to thank our fans, our community, student body, alumni, and families that brought their children. It’s a happening – to be here in South County, in the state of Rhode Island, it’s great.”

“Every time we went on a run or made a play, they were cheering,” said Ram junior Jamaal Wise, who had his first career double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds. “It’s a great feeling to have that type of homecourt advantage.”

Every time the Rams scored or made a play, the crowd made its presence felt, and when the plays were big, it was magnified. There was Dustin Hellenga’s controversial fourth foul on a loose ball that drew the loudest boos of the day. The building was electric when Wise hit a jumper to give the Rams a 44-42 lead with 8:11 left to play. The place went wild trying to distract St. Joseph’s junior guard Delonte West at the free throw line with 19.4 seconds left. And when the final two shots the Rams had both missed and the loose ball bounced away as time expired, the fans cheered on their team for playing a special game that won’t soon be forgotten by anyone who was there.

“Those kids behind the bench have been abusive and obscene in the past, they were nothing but supportive of their team today, as was the entire building,” St. Joseph’s head coach Phil Martelli said after the game. “There was no stupidity, I didn’t hear anything off-color, and I salute all the people that were at this game for that kind of conduct. It was a great atmosphere to be in, hard at times to function mentally – we couldn’t really communicate as well.”

The Rams gave the Hawks all they had, and it was almost enough. They held the Hawks, the Atlantic Ten’s top shooting team and ninth-best nationally at just over 49%, under 36% from the field. They man-handled the Hawks on the backboards by a 44-29 margin – no surprise since only Dayton has a better rebounding margin than the Rams and the Hawks often play with four guards. They scored more points off fewer turnovers, and had a 29-5 edge in bench scoring, although the latter statistic was skewed in part by Hellenga’s 15 points as senior Steve Mello started for just the second time this season.

“If people out there have been looking for a blueprint as to how to play us, they had it,” Martelli said of the Rams’ effort.

The Hawks, who entered the game having trailed for only about 76 minutes all season, trailed later in this game than they have at any point all season, as they were behind with under a minute to go before West’s game-winning three-pointer gave them the lead for good with 57.9 seconds left. It was the last of nine lead changes in the game, which was also tied 11 times.

All game long, Martelli kept his players calm. When the Rams made a run, or the Hawks had a miscue, he was the steadying influence. He would just signal to his players to just keep playing the game and keep their composure, and they certainly did that.

“I was more proud of the last two possessions than I was at any other point in the game,” Martelli said. “We stood tall and rebounded the ball the last two possessions.”

The Hawks lead the nation in scoring margin, but have had a couple of close calls prior to this one. They narrowly defeated California at the Pete Newell Challenge in December, but never trailed in that game. They won at Old Dominion by just three early in the season, and went down to the wire with Villanova early in February before winning by seven. Saturday’s game may have been their toughest all season.

“It was tough emotionally, it was tough mentally, and it was tough physically,” Martelli commented.

“This definitely was a tough game because it came down to a last shot,” West said. “I would definitely say this was one of the toughest places we had to play all year and the toughest win we’ve had all year.”

Winning on the road isn’t new for the Hawks, as they are now 13-0 on the road and 15-0 away from Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse and the Palestra. But the combination of playing in such a hostile arena and having to come back from trailing so late in the game was new, and it gave the Hawks something to take from it besides another one in the win column. Nelson and West both described it as “a learning experience”.

“I think we understand how to play in a situation like this, in a setting like this,” Nelson said.

The magical season has been as enjoyable for the coach as one would expect from seeing the team’s record. Martelli loves the group of players he has, and with good reason. The nation’s best player, Jameer Nelson, is a young man Martelli can’t say enough good things about; he’s a fine young man and a solid citizen off the court, and it all follows from there. Four players made the SJU Athletic Director’s Honor Roll for the Fall 2003 semester. The camaraderie is great between all of the players. The results all bear out the success of it: Nelson and classmate Tyrone Barley are the winningest players in the program’s history, getting their 94th win (against 26 defeats) on Saturday.

Martelli especially loves the way the team approaches everything, as well as how receptive they are to his coaching – something he finds to be a problem in many of today’s players.

“This day in age, there’s not a lot of kids that want to be coached anymore,” he reflected. “They all have the answer, or their parents have the answer, or their AAU coach has the answer – but with these kids, nobody looks sideways.”

There is the question of the Hawks getting a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Along with the notoriety that this historic season has brought the program, the critics have come out in full force. Talk abounds that the Hawks do not deserve a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament even if they run the table – all of which is really absurd. Critics cite the Atlantic Ten being a weak conference, but it is rated higher than the Pac Ten in RPI, which has the other undefeated team in Stanford – a team that many of the same critics have no problem giving a No. 1 seed to. Baron is one person who has no doubts about the Hawks.

“They’re a great team, they’re a great representative team for the (Atlantic 10) Conference,” he said after the game. “There’s no question in my mind, they’re definitely a No. 1 seed. To win a game like this, where it could have gone either way, and they pulled it out, says a lot about a great basketball team.”

While the Atlantic Ten is not loaded with powerhouse teams, there is something to be said for winning every time out, and the Hawks have done that. The idea in the NCAA Tournament is to win; you lose once and you’re out. It has opened up debate about whether or not the Hawks or Stanford would be better if they lost a game before the NCAA Tournament – a silly debate when the subject is competitive athletes and coaches, who must always approach a game as though they should win. Nelson fully understands that and says the team doesn’t worry about what the critics are saying.

“We just go out there and play, and everything takes care of itself,” he reflects. “The bottom line is, every time we’ve stepped out on the court, we’ve won.”

The Hawks now take their undefeated mark back home for Tuesday night’s regular season finale against St. Bonaventure. Martelli is ready to keep this season rolling right along as it has for the first 26 games.

“If you have a ticket, or you’re going to be in the building, you’re going to see something that will go down in history – what this team is about to do Tuesday night,” he promised. “They are a once-in-a-lifetime team, and they’re going to put their stamp in history on Tuesday night as a once-in-a-lifetime team.”


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