James Demery (above) had a terrific two-way game as St. Joe's beat the defending Patriot League champs on Wednesday night. (Photo: Tommy Smith/CoBL)
Zach Drapkin (@ZachDrapkin)
Saint Joseph’s defensive gameplan against Bucknell was simple: contain Zach Thomas.
Entering Wednesday, the Bison’s versatile junior forward had scored 20-plus points in all but one of the Bison’s seven games, including a 38-point outburst against Stony Brook on Sunday. His 25.4 ppg ranked third in the nation. Limiting his effectiveness was a necessity if an injury-shortened Hawks squad wanted to stay undefeated in two games on its home court.
“Playing somebody that’s patient is really hard because you’ve got to try to take them out their comfort zone,” St. Joe’s senior forward James Demery said.
St. Joe’s stuck to its plan, frustrating Thomas all night and holding him to a season-low 15 points as the Hawks took an 83-70 victory.
Hounded by double-teams and post traps, Thomas looked flustered all night, shooting 3-for-15 from the field and 1-for-5 from three, though he did grab 19 rebounds. Over half of his points came from the free throw line, where he went 8-for-10.
The 6-7 forward’s poor shooting night was a bad omen for the rest of the Bucknell team, as the Bison shot 34 percent from the floor (27-of-79) and 15 percent (4-of-27) from 3 in the loss.
St. Joe’s wouldn’t play Thomas one-on-one, switching between man and zone schemes to keep the All-Patriot League first teamer out of his comfort zone.
“We just kept switching Cecco [Pierfrancesco Oliva] and James on him. And we knew not to honor shot fakes, and tried to keep him off the foul line,” Hawks head coach Phil Martelli said.
“We were able to speed him up with our defense, just stay on him, just make him feel uncomfortable,” Demery added. “He still was able to get to the basket, got foul shots. He’s a good player.”
The Hawks clearly succeeded in making Thomas feel out-of-sorts, forcing him into two first-half turnovers, plus a jump ball and a couple of shots that missed the rim entirely.
St. Joe’s led 40-27 at the half behind 14 points from Chris Clover, who finished with a season-high 17, and 11 points from Demery, who had a game-high 20. Bucknell was shooting just 25 percent from the floor at the break, and was half as good from three, going 2-for-16 (12.5 percent).
The Bison put up 43 points in the second frame, but it was too little too late, as St. Joe’s matched that total but held a comfortable lead the entire half.
After Foulland opened the second half with a layup for the Bison, St. Joe’s mounted a 14-4 run -- which really consisted of two 7-0 runs separated by four Bucknell points in between -- to push the lead to 21 with 14 minutes to play.
At that point, Bucknell ditched the 3-point shot and took a more direct approach on offense, which worked to some regard, as the team got within 15 at the nine-minute mark.
But the comeback effort would only come that far, as the closest Bucknell got in the second half was 12 points.
That was the deficit with 90 seconds to play, but a Shavar Newkirk three sunk any hopes of a last-minute miracle.
Newkirk ended the night with 19 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, and no turnovers, his first career double-double for the Hawks.
“Nineteen points, 10 rebounds, and six assists, you’d say ‘man, that was an All-Big 5 night,’” Martelli said. “There’s a lot more there…I don’t think he’s playing like Shavar yet.”
The 6-0 senior was averaging 20.3 ppg last season prior to an ACL tear that sidelined him for eight months, and he was only just healthy enough to take the court for the season debut.
Now, Martelli is focusing on getting him back up to 100 percent.
“I think he spent 10 months trying to get back on the court, but he hasn’t spent time yet to be conditioned to play,” Martelli said. “That’s the most minutes he’s played. And even that was a little bit of a stretch. I was trying to hold him to 30 minutes. What I applauded him in front of his teammates was his courage to be out there."
“On the scouting report, it was grab loose rebounds because they shoot a lot of threes and threes tend to lead to long rebounds, so I was just being scrappy getting the long ones,” Newkirk added.
There certainly were plenty of rebounds to be had -- 100 in total. Thomas wasn’t the only Bucknell player struggling to find the basket, and the Bison attempted 79 field goals on the day, since they play at a very fast pace. Plus, St. Joe’s didn’t have a great night either, making just 41 percent (28-of-68) of its tries from the floor.
Bucknell edged the Hawks on the glass, 51-49, led by Thomas’s 19 boards. Fellow Patriot League first-teamer Nana Foulland had 10 boards to go along with his team-high 17 points, while Newkirk and Oliva paced St. Joe’s with 10 rebounds apiece.
Foulland had a 14-point second half but was 1-of-7 from the foul line on the game, contributing significantly to the team’s 12-of-23 finish from the stripe, a mark which becomes 4-for-13 when you take away Thomas’s trips to the line.
Coming into the game, St. Joe’s already had one of the nation’s lowest turnover rates, and the lack of giveaways was a strength once again for the Hawks, who turned the ball over just six times.
“We’re doing a really good job,” Martelli said. “That number should even be lower. We turned the ball over on the first play of the game throwing a bounce pass from the baseline out.”
Winning against Bucknell, a tournament team from last season, is good preparation for the Hawks as they prepare to host No. 4 Villanova in the Holy War on Saturday night. The Wildcats (7-0) just thrashed Penn 90-62 on Wednesday night in their first Big 5 game this season.
St. Joe’s didn’t play its best game, but the team has something to learn from.
“We just played an NCAA level team. They’re playing in March,” Martelli said. “And we didn’t play our best game, we didn’t play our best game of the year, we didn’t play our best half, we didn’t play our best stretch, and we were able to get out with a win…we have to grow on it.
“Now we have an opportunity to play a monster.”