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Off-court rivalry spurs Hawks' on-court chemistry

03/04/2016, 5:45pm EST
By Josh Verlin

Isaiah Miles (above) is 18 points away from 1000 as St. Joe's hosts Duquesne on Senior Night. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

Saint Joseph’s senior Isaiah Miles knows his teammate Papa Ndao well enough to give a breakdown of his game.

That’s because the two have gone 1-on-1 on most every road trip the Hawks have taken over the last four years, battles of wits and strength going on between the 6-foot-8 Miles and 6-9 Ndao.

“I’m more of a defensive guy,” Miles said. “Papa...he’s an aggressor.”

That might be a little surprising to those who’ve watched the two play ball for the Hawks over their respective college careers; Miles averages a team-best 17.9 ppg while Ndao, a sixth-year-senior, contributes 5.5 ppg off the bench.

But that’s because this isn’t about basketball. It’s about chess.

“He tell you that he wins? He doesn’t,” Miles said before the Hawks’ practice on Friday. “I win all the time. He hates it. But it’s competitive.”

"Right now he's got the lead,” Ndao admitted. “But the last game I was whooping him.”

And now it’s starting to spill over to the rest of the team.

Sophomore wing James Demery has been the latest to join in, giving Miles a run for his money.

“You can ask anyone else on the team, it gets pretty serious,” Miles said. “It made the road trips more fun. It built a connection and there was bonding between us.”

The Hawks’ board game rivalry has even been going on under head coach Phil Martelli’s nose.

“I had no idea,” he said when the topic was brought up.

Of course, Martelli has more pressing things to worry about.

The Hawks (24-6, 13-4 Atlantic 10) are sitting on the precipice of locking up their second NCAA Tournament berth in the last three years, in good shape with only one regular-season game remaining. Duquesne (15-15, 5-12 A-10) visits Hagan Arena on Saturday afternoon at 4 PM in the finale, which will be the Senior Day for Miles, Ndao and fellow senior Aaron Brown, as well as walk-on Skylar Scrivano and guard-turned-student assistant Kyle Molock.

On top of all that, Martelli is one win away from 400 and Miles just 18 points from 1000 for his career. And he’s got to get his team to forget all of it and focus on the Dukes.

“When we start practice, I’m going to say to them we are 40 minutes from achieving 25 and 14, and there’s nobody anywhere who had those numbers for you,” Martelli said, referencing his team’s potential overall and conference win totals with a victory. “That’s an accomplishment, but it has to be an earned accomplishment--Duquesne’s not going to give it to you...we have to go out there and earn it, and then that’s a group achievement.”

Miles, Brown and Ndao have all taken very different paths to get to where they are now.

Brown, a 6-5 wing out of Penn Wood HS, spent his first two college years at West Virginia before transferring to St. Joe’s in the summer of 2013. After sitting out that season due to NCAA transfer regulations, he’s averaged 9.3 ppg in 61 games in a St. Joe’s uniform.

“Being able to come back here and play in front of family and friends for two years, it’s been great,” said Brown, who’s expecting more than 30 friends and family in attendance on Saturday. “The main focus is wrapping up the regular season with a win. Senior night is a good night, but we don’t want that to distract from the importance of the game.”

Ndao, a sixth-year forward, spent the entire 2014-15 season and the first part of this year out with health issues, but has returned to his role as the first big man off the bench for the Hawks, knocking down 38 percent of his 3-pointers.

And Miles has been one of the most improved players in the entire Atlantic 10 and Big 5 this season, leading his team in scoring and rebounding (8.0/game) while shooting 53 percent overall and 38.8 percent from 3-point range.

“I’m very happy for him to see where he’s been and to where he is now, with the things that he’s doing,” Ndao said of his chess partner. “I’m really, really...I don’t even know how much I can express how proud I am of him, how happy I am with him doing all these things.”

Depending on the results of Saturday’s game as well as a few other league matchups, St. Joe’s will either be the No. 2, No. 3 or No. 4 seed in next weekend’s Atlantic 10 tournament at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

You can be sure that won’t be the only Hawks’ competition of the weekend.

“I’m going to try to get (Demery) in Brooklyn,” Miles said. “He’s my new challenger now.”

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