Mitchell Northam (@primetimeMitch)
Papa Ndao had not started for St. Joseph’s in nearly two years.
The 6-foot-8 forward from Dakar, Senegal last started for the Hawks on Jan. 15, 2014 and he scored five points and grabbed seven rebounds in his team’s win against Duquesne. But because of an unspecified illness, Ndao sat out all of last season.
A healthy Ndao has played nine games for the Hawks this season and has been valuable off the bench as a reserve big man. However, against George Mason on Tuesday night in Fairfax, Virginia, the Hawks needed Ndao to play big and important minutes.
In the place of an injured Pierfrancesco Oliva, Ndao started and notched 13 points, two rebounds and an assist for the Hawks in 21 minutes of play as they topped the Patriots, 87-73, at the Patriot Center.
“(Ndao) is a veteran,” said Hawks’ senior forward Isaiah Miles. “He’s ready for moments like this and there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that he wasn’t going to be ready. He knocked big shots down. It wasn’t a surprise to me.”
The Hawks (13-3; 3-1 A-10) were without Oliva because he sprained his ankle in Tuesday’s practice prior to the game against the Patriots (6-11; 0-4 A-10). He was on crutches during the game and did not play. Starting in all of the Hawks’ games before their meeting with Mason, the freshman forward is averaging 4.9 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists per-game
But Oliva was unable to go, so the seasoned Ndao - in his fifth season with St. Joe’s - was thrown into action.
“We just talked about it earlier today while we were talking about the match-ups,” Ndao said. “It doesn’t really affect how I play. Like, whatever we got to do to win, I’m for it. If it’s me playing five minutes or whatever, it doesn’t really matter. I just want to win at this point in my career.”
Ndao made an impact immediately and flushed a 3-point shot on the game’s first possession. That kick-started a 16-6 run for the Hawks.
Late in the game, with under three minutes to play, Ndao came up big again and connected on his second and third three-pointers of the night to increase St. Joe’s lead after Mason had cut the deficit to single digits.
“I think the bigger player was Javon Baumann because Papa got into foul trouble trying to do too much on defense,” said St. Joe’s head coach Phil Martelli. “Javon did a really nice job for us defensively in the low post.”
Ndao did have some issues with foul trouble, picking up his fourth personal around the 10-minute mark of the second half. Baumann played 11 minutes in relief.
Really, the Hawks’ player who had the most impact was Miles, who scored 26 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for the winning side.
“Coming off the last game we were concerned about how (Rhode Island) limited the number of shots that (Miles) could get,” Martelli said. “Right away tonight the players looked for him and found him. He deserves a lot of credit because he didn’t hang his head over (how many shots he got on Sunday). None of these guys do that. They let you coach them and that’s the most important thing for us.”
But like Miles and DeAndre’ Bembry, who also had a double-double with 16 points and 11 rebounds, Ndao helped the Hawks in a number of ways.
The Patriots came within a point of tying the lead late in the first half, but on the shoulders of Miles the Hawks went on a 12-2 run to extend their lead against the Patriots. Miles had 16 points in the first half.
But capping that run off was a highlight play from Ndao. He received a pass outside of the right wing from Bembry and could have fired away but a defender was closing in. Instead, Ndao pump-faked, drove to the right against another defender and dished a pass behind him to Bembry, who was wide open in the corner and drained a three-pointer to push the Hawks’ lead to 13.
“Yea it felt good, but I always approach the game the same way whether I start or don’t start,” Ndao said. “I just try to stay in the flow of the game. I just try to play basketball the right way. If it’s time for me to take a shot, I’ll take a shot.”
The Hawks led wire to wire and never allowed the Patriots to even the score after the opening buzzer. Still, there was a glaring area in which they could improve.
Coming into this game, the Hawks were one of the best defensive teams in the Atlantic-10 and led the conference in defensive field goal percentage by only allowing their previous opponents to shoot just 39 percent from the floor. But the Patriots had a 46.6 shooting percentage in this game and Martelli was not pleased about his team’s ball-stopping efforts
“We’re trying to lean on our defense, (but) that was poor defense in the second half,” Martelli said. “We got too comfortable - and it was team defense, not individual defense - and now we’re halfway through the season and that’s a wrinkle that hasn’t surfaced for us and we have to make sure it doesn’t become a wart and we have to eliminate, what I thought was, a poor defensive performance for us.”
Miles’ echoed his coach’s comments, realizing that the Hawks had once again let up off the gas in the second half.
“We start a game off like we’re about to blow a team out and then we let them creep up,” Miles said. “Against VCU, that bit us in the butt. We don’t want to have that happen to us. Our major thing right now is closing games out.”
The Hawks have won nine of their last 10 games and hope that streak continues when they return to the City of Brotherly Love on Saturday for a home game against Fordham. That will start a stretch of four straight games that the Hawks will play in Philadelphia.
It’s unclear how serious Oliva’s injury is at this time, but the team is optimistic that he will be back soon. In the meantime, at least they can lean on a frontcourt that features Miles, Bembry and a lively, athletic and tough forward in Ndao.