(Mike Lawrence – Sportsday Wire)
The St. Joseph’s Hawks won the Atlantic 10 Championship, as they beat VCU 87-74 on Sunday at Barclays Center.
This is St. Joseph’s second A10 title in three years, and VCU was denied a chance at repeating as champions.
St. Joe’s dominated this one early, as they took a 43-34 lead at halftime. The Hawks shot 65 percent in the first half.
St. Joe’s guard Aaron Brown said of the keys offensively in the first half, “Man, we just wanted to punch first. In the previous two games, VCU got off to some hot starts, and it really wasn’t close. They weren’t really challenged as we could see. We just wanted to punch first and play from there.”
That momentum continued into the second half, as they opened up a 16-point lead, 57-41 in the opening minutes.
The Hawks didn’t let up, and an Isaiah Miles three-point play made it 70-49 with 8:45 left in the game.
VCU would not go away, and the Rams cut it to seven, at 75-68 on a Jordan Burgess three-pointer with 4:28 left.
St. Joe’s responded with a 10-2 run to seal the game. DeAndre’ Bembry slammed one home with 1:52 left to give the Hawks a commanding 85-70 lead.
DeAndre’ Bembry led St. Joe’s with 30 points on a sterling 13-16 from the field, with five rebounds and four assists. Isaiah Miles had 26 points on 11-16 shooting, 12 rebounds and 2 assists. Aaron Brown had 13 points and five rebounds.
For VCU, JeQuan Lewis and Korey Billbury had 19 points each.
Isaiah Miles said of how it feels, “Oh, man, it’s an amazing feeling. I’m just happy for all the seniors being able to finish on top, and it’s just like a senior’s dream, finishing as high as you possibly can. I’ve been saying that all year, and finally all the work, all the summer work, everything paid off. I’m happy for all our seniors, me, AB, Papa, it all paid off.”
Miles said of what led to St. Joe’s winning the A10 after being picked seventh or eighth in the conference before the season, “Not to play attention to any of that. Like Coach has been preaching we’re all we’ve got. The guys in this room, the guys in that room, the guys in the locker room, the guys who work hard, work our butts off in practice, those are the guys we’re playing for. We’re not playing for the media, we’re not playing for rankings. We’re playing for each other and having each other’s backs. We really didn’t focus on any of that. That had no play on the season. We just played our game and we played hard.”
St. Joseph’s Head Coach Phil Martelli said of what he saw in his team back in August that him see them as a special team, “I believed it or I wouldn’t have said it, and to be honest with you, it was the noise. Every time I was around them there was noise. Now, whether it was laughter, whether it was talk about how to play, talk about how to make a play. The noise. And it’s continued all year long. So every NBA team that came in, half of those NBA guys are at least acquaintances of mine if not more, and they would all say the same thing, man, your team really likes to play, they really like to play together. Ed Rush, the great NBA official came, brought his grandson for like a birthday party, and he said to me, it’s January, and most teams are like in their own little bubble. Each kid is in his own little bubble. These guys are talking and excited like they all just made the team. That’s what it was. It was the noise around them, and then noting that they were going to allow me to coach them and not manage them.
“A lot of times you manage egos, cliques, expectations, but I was able to coach these guys from August on, and not alone. My assistant coaches deserve a lot of credit.”
Martelli said of that making it any more special to watch them celebrate a win in the tournament championship, “There’s no question about it. There’s no question about it. Look, championships are forever, okay. So whether they want to get tatted up or not get tatted up, they have a tattoo now. Every kid on that team, 2016 Atlantic 10 champions. That’s their tattoo. That’s theirs.
“The celebration, and I’ve often said this, I do this to put smiles on people’s faces, and to see those smiles from my family and to see those smiles from those players, and to hear what those parents would say to you because they trusted you with their son, that’s pretty cool.
“Look, I’m going to tell you the best day. The best day in this job is graduation day. Graduation day. Because that to me means that I did what I promised them that I would do. I want to hand back these parents a man, a guy who has graduated from college. I didn’t graduate them. They graduated from college, and I want as many of them as can to play as long as they can. I’d like them to play for money. That’s what I tell every parent. You’re going to get everything that I have to give you a man, a graduate, and a pro. So add champion to it,” Martelli said.
Martelli previously talked about taking the ball at VCU, and they did that with 54 points in the paint, and he said of that, “Well, we had some — because of the size that they play with, we had some opportunities to get straight-line drives. We were able to do that and I thought that the passing was extraordinary. We cut — we told them that they had to treat it as if everything was a trap, and you had to make a cut off the ball. And I think that as the game got longer and the score started to mount, I think VCU started to stretch the floor, and we were able to slice and dice a little bit.
“But I would have thought to get to that number, we would have needed multiple three-point shots, and even saying 87, just from a basketball technical point of view, like that’s our group. We shot 65 percent and 53 from the foul line. Give me a break. In the next game, 53 from the foul line could be collect uniform time.
“But just the cutting. The cutting and their implementation of a plan that we put together in a hotel room last night for them was extraordinary,” said Martelli.