By Joseph Santoliquito (@JSantoliquito)
PHILADELPHIA — As the final minute ticked away, Billy Lange stood there locked in the moment, dressed in dapper black with his arms folded in a sedate mode in front of the Saint Joseph’s bench. Within seconds, the Hawks’ coach was back up on his toes, coaching again, even with the game in hand, yelling and screaming, and fervently clapping to implore his players on.
Saint Joseph's name is attached to the first-ever Big 5 Classic championship banner. (Photo: Joseph Santoliquito/CoBL)
He was not about to reflect on the bigger meaning, on what this meant to a Philly hoops lifer like himself—to win the first Big 5 Classic.
The school-color streamers, the raucous crowds, that’s the Big 5 Lange remembered from going to city games crammed in one of the Palestra corners as a kid with his father, former Lenape and Bishop Eustace legendary coach Bill Lange.
Billy Lange got to grab a piece of history Saturday in leading the Hawks to a 74-65 victory over Temple to win the inaugural championship of the Big 5 Classic before a combined total of 15,215 over the three games at the Wells Fargo Center.
“I know what this means for my family and our guys. This is a big deal for my mom and dad,” Lange said. “I couldn’t find them in the crowd, but I know somewhere they were crying over what their son did. I know to win a championship with our guys is a really big deal. It means something to me, and I’m excited because St. Joe’s gets to represent the Big 5; otherwise, I don’t really think about myself too much.
“I wanted these guys to enjoy it. I told these guys on Thursday that we were going to play this game like the last game of the year. Literally, that’s how we handled it. I said when you wake up Friday morning, Wednesday’s win [over nationally-ranked Villanova] is over. It’s done. We’re going to take the next two days and see if we can play like this is the last game of the season. I wanted them to attack this opportunity like that.”
Intellectually, Lange told his team, it won’t be. From a physical standpoint, from a pressure standpoint, Lange thought winning Saturday night was a big deal.
St. Joe’s (6-2) showed that. The Hawks led from start to finish. Scoring came at a premium. The Hawks’ Rasheer Fleming led all scorers with a career-best 22 points and grabbed nine rebounds, with 14 points from Lynn Greer III, while Cameron Brown and Erik Reynolds II each added 11. Eight of Brown’s 11 came in the second half. Temple (4-3) was led by Jordan Riley’s 20 and freshman Zion Stanford’s 19.
The Big 5 Classic ended a memorable week for Lange, whose Hawks vanquished rival Villanova on Wednesday and finished by beating stubborn Temple.
“I thought it was a really good game. Our guys fought. We got behind early in the first half and we responded coming out at halftime,” Temple coach Adam Fisher said. “That’s a really good team. St. Joe’s is a good team and we knew they wanted to shoot a lot of threes. We tried to take that away.
“They made almost all their free throws, credit to them, but proud of our guys for their effort. Now we have to turn the page from tonight and get ready for the next one.”
Temple did not shoot well. The Owls were 23-of-65 (35.4%) from the floor, to St. Joe’s 24-of-52 (46.2%).
Rasheer Fleming (above) had a career game against Temple. (Photo: Gavin Bethell/CoBL)
Fleming was a difference-maker. The 6-foot-9 sophomore out of Camden had a monster game, finishing with 22 points on eight of 11 shooting, including two of four from three-point range.
“Eventually, his game will come,” Lange said of Fleming. “He gets a little sped up, because he wants to please so much. But if we can keep his focus on, his spirit is so pure.”
Early in the second half, St. Joe’s added to its double-figure lead, getting out to a 40-25 edge with 18:07 left to play. Then the Hawks went cold. Temple slowly chipped away, as St. Joe’s went 4 minutes, 13 seconds without scoring. In the meantime, the Owls pulled within 40-36 on a Stanford free throw, before Greer stopped the slide with a driving layup with 12:58 to play.
Fleming’s big put back off a Greer miss with 8:32 left gave the Hawks some cushion, 54-47, added by a Reynolds bucket at 7:08 gave the Hawks a 56-47 lead. Cameron Brown’s trey zapped any Owls’ comeback hopes, putting the Hawks firmly ahead, 67-53, with 1:49 left.
The Hawks went into halftime leading 34-23. Led by Fleming’s 11, St. Joe’s never trailed over the first 20 minutes, opening up two 12-point leads (27-15 and 32-20). It did not help that Temple went absolutely frigid from the floor for 7 minutes, 33 seconds (from 10:40 to 3:07).
In the end, St. Joe’s was the team that raised the first Big 5 Classic banner. Can this Big 5 Classic work moving forward at the Wells Fargo Center?
“I think everything can work, if people want to do it,” Lange said. “It takes effort, it takes creativity, it takes the right leadership. You know the Big 5 has tradition. When you build on the tradition, you don’t need to disregard the tradition. The Palestra is part of the tradition. I think the campus venues are part of the tradition. I love playing at Villanova. We love playing at the Liacouras Center. We love playing in the Palestra. Those are great games, too.
And this should be a part of it, because we have something unique that no other city in the country has. There’s no other place that has this.”
Joseph Santoliquito is a hall of fame, award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who began writing for CoBL in 2021 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here.