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St. Joe's seniors step up in win over Bonaventure

01/07/2018, 3:00am EST
By Josh Verlin

Shavar Newkirk (above) and St. Joe's beat St. Bonaventure 85-78 on Saturday evening. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

Phil Martelli didn’t mince words when asked if he felt the two scholarship seniors on the Saint Joseph’s basketball roster were playing with the appropriate amount of urgency, given the rapidly-dwindling time remaining in their collegiate careers.

“No,” he said. “They’re not.”

But, the Hawks’ 26th-year coach added of Shavar Newkirk and James Demery, “they’re getting better at it.”

Saint Joseph’s certainly got what it needed from the pair on Saturday evening, as the Hawks held off Saint Bonaventure for an 85-78 win in Atlantic 10 Conference play.

Demery (24 points) and Newkirk (23) provided more than half their team’s offense in an impressive win over a Bonnies squad that is gunning for a spot in the NCAA Tournament, with wins over Maryland, Syracuse, Vermont, Yale, Buffalo and more already under its belt.

Considering St. Joe’s (7-7, 2-1 A-10) is missing two starters due to injury, with two other starters coming off years missed due to injury, it was a notable win indeed, and follows up one over Virginia Commonwealth on Wednesday to give the Hawks some much-needed momentum this time of the year.

But they’re about to head on the road for their next two games, and there’s 13 more A-10 games after that, along with a Big 5 game against Penn at the Palestra in the middle. If Martelli’s squad is going to battle through a down year in the A-10 to give itself a shot at a postseason bid, it needs more than just 47 points per game from Demery and Newkirk. It needs leadership.

It's been an interesting path to this point for the pair.

Demery is the team's leading scorer (16.9 ppg), but the 6-foot-6 wing from North Carolina is a poor 3-point shooter (22 percent for his career), and is at his best when he can be an attacker off the rip with shooters around him. Newkirk, more of a natural scorer who was the team's leader in that category at over 20 ppg last year, tore his ACL just past one year ago and is still getting back to 100 percent. Neither has needed to be a dominant personality in the St. Joe's program, and weren't even supposed to be in this position this season.

Junior point guard Lamarr Kimble, the team’s sole captain this season, is on the sidelines with a broken foot suffered in the season opener that will force him to take a redshirt this year. And while he’s supportive as he can be from the bench, he’s not on the floor. And considering the rest of the St. Joe’s rotation consists of two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior, it’s on Newkirk and Demery to step up in the locker room.

“Seniors are a big deal,” Martelli said. “[On] Wednesday, (they’re) 50 percent through (their) last year, 50 percent of the games are now gone. And we’ve got to show up every night and play it like it’s a championship game.”

Two years ago, when St. Joe’s won 28 games and an Atlantic 10 Conference championship as well as a first-round NCAA Tournament game, the Hawks had terrific leadership in seniors Isaiah Miles and Aaron Brown, plus junior DeAndre’ Bembry, who everybody knew was in his final year of collegiate basketball with the NBA beckoning.

James Demery (above) is St. Joe's leading scorer so far this season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Newkirk and Demery were the fourth and fifth-high minute-getters on that team, role players who certainly helped out but didn’t have to shoulder the burden that their older teammates did, either in terms of on-court responsibilities or off-court attention. But they paid attention to the way that other trio handled themselves, and saw what happened last year when it was gone, when St. Joe’s went 11-20 overall and 4-14 in Atlantic 10 play.

“We’ve got to act like a champion if we want to be champions,” Newkirk said. “We saw two years ago when DeAndre, Aaron Brown and Isaiah Miles (were) here, they showed us the way, and that’s basically what we have to do.”

Martelli got a positive sign after St. Joe’s lost its conference opener to George Washington on Dec. 30.

He was approached afterwards by Newkirk, who asked him to do something he’d never done before: watch the game film together. It was, as Martelli acknowledged, “a huge step” for the senior guard.

“I always watch film, but I felt like to be a championship team, me and the head coach have to be on the same accord, so being the senior and having leadership, that’s something I have to do,” Newkirk said. “It was a great thing I did it, because [Martelli] pointed out stuff that helped me be a better player.”

In the win over VCU, Newkirk had 12 points and five assists against one turnover, surviving a poor shooting night (4-18, 0-6 3PT) to come up with assists on two key baskets in overtime. In the win over St. Bonaventure, he complimented his 23 points with 10 rebounds and five assists with just two turnovers.

Martelli saw more leadership progress from Newkirk in the win over the Bonnies as well.

“What I just complimented (Newkirk) on in the locker room was the communication,” he said. “He was telling me, ‘let’s run this, let’s run that.’ When I wanted to bite [freshman forward] Taylor Funk’s head off for missing two free throws, Shavar was like ‘coach, I’ve got him.”

In an Atlantic 10 Conference experiencing a down year -- only two A-10 teams, Rhode Island and Bonaventure, were in Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology -- it’s certainly possible for St. Joe’s to pull off a few more wins and suddenly find itself in the thick of the race as it heats up. The Hawks are currently ranked No. 128 on KenPom, which is currently fifth-best in the league.

If they play like they did this week, it’s certainly possible. Sophomore forward Pierfrancesco Oliva was terrific in the middle of the Bonaventure zone, finishing with nine points, eight rebounds and eight assists. Another sophomore, Nick Robinson, had eight points and made several key plays down the stretch, including a put-back dunk and a block to help the Hawks hold off the Bonnies.

Funk, a 6-9 freshman out of Manheim Central, only had eight points against Bonaventure as he struggled with fouls, but he’s been the team’s best 3-point shooter this year (.451) and its third-leading scorer (13.9 ppg).

There’s also the matter of sophomore Charlie Brown, who was expected to make a step up from his 12.8 ppg he averaged as a freshman. The 6-6 wing brings some sharpshooting ability (38.4 percent last year) to a team that sorely needs it, but he’s been out since the preseason with a fractured left wrist. Brown will be out until at least later this month, but it’s still unclear whether or not he’ll make it back this season or not.

His return would be a boost, but it’s not a return they’re necessarily factoring into their current plans. Martelli wasn’t buying any of the clichés about injuries, either.

“It’s not hold the fort, it’s nothing,” Martelli said. “It’s not the next man up, because nobody that we put in for Charlie Brown is an all-league candidate. His time will come and then we’ll have another team. This is the team that we have, playing George Mason on Wednesday.”

Mason (7-8, 1-1) and UMass (8-8, 1-2) will host St. Joe’s this week, before the Hawks return home to host Dayton and Fordham at Hagan Arena on Jan. 17 and 20, respectively.

And as for those Martelli-Newkirk film sessions…

“It’s going to be a common thing,” Newkirk said. “We’re all in it to win it as a team.”

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