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Bonnies throw curve at St. Joe's semifinal matchup

03/14/2014, 7:15pm EDT
By Josh Verlin

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

BROOKLYN, N.Y.–The majority opinion going into the Atlantic 10 Tournament was that Saint Joseph’s needed one win to secure a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

The Hawks were sitting squarely on the bubble with a 21-9 record (11-5 Atlantic 10) heading into the weekend at the Barclays Center following losses in their last two regular-season games, first at George Washington and then at home to La Salle.

Their quarterfinal opponent would be none other than Dayton, another team desperately needing a win in Brooklyn to solidify their standing in the eyes of the all-powerful Selection Committee. The Flyers, sporting a 23-9 record, had won 10 of 11 games heading into the quarterfinals, with their only loss coming back on on Feb. 25 to–who else?–Saint Joseph’s.

To say there was a lot on the line for both teams would be an understatement. And both teams played like it, with things coming right down to the final seconds before Langston Galloway’s 3-pointer got Saint Joseph’s a crucial 70-67 win.

“I thought the game would be a 50-50 game, to be honest with you,” SJU coach Phil Martelli said. “You all know what you just saw. You saw two high-level teams, and if justice is to be served for those kids and for Archie [Miller] and that wonderful fan base, they will get their name called on Sunday.”

Saint Joseph’s seems likely to hear their name called on Sunday, though the way another quarterfinal went on Friday might have fans thinking that it’ll take two wins to get into March Madness.

It was assumed SJU would play No. 18 Saint Louis, the conference’s top seed, in the semifinals. A loss to SLU, with a record of 26-5 headed into the tournament, wouldn’t do nearly as much damage to the resumé as the win over Dayton would help.

However, things didn’t exactly go as planned.

St. Bonaventure, the conference’s ninth seed, pulled off the shocker of the tournament to this point, knocking off Saint Louis on a game-winning 3-pointer by Jordan Gathers at the buzzer. Now a semifinal game between two NCAA Tournament teams has turned into one between an SJU team still trying to put as much space between itself and the bubble as possible and a team that knows it could still play the role of spoiler.

The biggest downside for St. Joe’s is that, instead of a chance to get a resumé-building win over SLU, they now have to just survive a game against St. Bonaventure. Will a loss knock them out of the tournament? Likely not. But a victory won’t bump them up a seed or two either, unless they can beat Virginia Commonwealth or Massachusetts on Sunday for a win that’ll look better to the Selection Committee.

“I’m going to say this with all due respect: for two years, Saint Louis has been the best in this league and there’s part of me that wants to measure ourselves against the best,” Martelli said. “And for 40 minutes today, St. Bonaventure was the best, so we’re anxious to do that tomorrow.”

In a game back on Feb. 5 at Hagan Arena, Saint Louis handed SJU its biggest home loss of the season, 65-49. The Hawks’ matchup against the Bonnies ended much differently, with Galloway dropping 27 points to lead all scorers in an 83-74 SJU win back on March 1.

So does that mean SJU’s path to the Atlantic 10 tournament final just got much easier?

“Not at all,” senior forward Halil Kanacevic said. “Doesn’t make a difference. Are they different teams? Yes. Is Saint Louis a great team? Yes. [But] St. Bonaventure is no doormat.

“The A-10 is a tough conference. Every team is tough. You see every game this year, probably every team is tough, from the bottom of the league to the top of the league. Every game you play, you’ve just got to bring it.”

Whatever the result of Saturday’s matchup, SJU’s confident that they’ve done enough to get to the tournament. A 4-4 start to the year wasn’t stellar, nor was losing the final two games heading into the postseason.

But their coach believes they’ll be dancing for the first time since a first-round exit in 2008.

“Coaches campaigning or coaches thinking in any way, shape or form that campaigning to Joe Lunardi has anything to do with it–it’s numbers, pure and simple,” Martelli said. “We’ll now be under 40 RPI. We have 11 road wins, road or neutral. We played in this league and we’re in the semi-finals, in this league. Enough said. Enough said.”

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