Posted by: mdegeorge | March 11, 2011

Hawks earn right to dream in Atlantic City

It’s March. For the most fleeting of 40 minutes, hope springs eternal for every college basketball team fortunate enough to survive the regular season intact enough to make their conference tournaments.

With the pressure ratcheted up, stars can be born out of nothing and fade into oblivion just as quickly.

Photo courtesy of sjuhawknews.com

Enter the Saint Joseph’s University Hawks. A team that a month ago was mired at 5-17 and hoping for a date with fellow Jesuit Atlantic 10 struggler Fordham simply to get off the mark in conference play, the Hawks have now won six of their last 10, including four of five and three straight to position themselves 80 (albeit what will have to be miraculous) minutes from one of the most unlikely NCAA tournament bids in recent history.

The idea is still so far off it almost seems criminal to contemplate it. But two games in Atlantic City pale in comparison to the eternity on the brink they have already endured in back-to-back overtime games.

It’s March, and dreams of NCAA glory are the currency that drives the month.

After a Feb. 23 loss at Massachusetts, the Hawks faced a daunting task to earn the 12th and final seed in the Atlantic 10 tournament. But a convincing defeat of St. Bonaventure and a winner-take-12th game at Charlotte that they managed to eke out, 71-70, thanks to a free throw by freshman Langston Galloway with 4.7 seconds left punched St. Joe’s ticket.

They earned a trip to George Washington, which they salvaged in the extra session thanks to 22 points in five minutes, more than their total from seven halves of basketball this season. They then delivered today’s character win over Duquesne, rebounding to win a game in which they squandered a 11-point second half lead and bounce a team that thumbed them by 12 points in the conference opener at home.

Yes, the Hawks have dispatched the tournament’s fifth and fourth seeds, respectively, this week. And maintaining that momentum is even tougher. But not impossible.

The upset-o-rama that Boardwalk Hall has played host to this week leaves the Hawks a date with the ninth seed Dayton, which upset Xavier by a single point in the noon game despite doing its best to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat against its instate rival.

The Hawks actually match up well against the Flyers, having almost beaten them in their first road trip of the A-10 season in a 65-59 decision.

The Hawks are playing with house money and have nothing to lose. But it’s not some form of reckless abandon that is guiding the team. They’re playing disciplined ball as the team with the 14th best turnover margin in the nation (that sounds like a foreign language for even the best of Phil Martelli teams). Despite reaching the 90s against the high-flying Dukes, they were able to slow the tempo of the game down and cope with Duquesne’s full-court pressure. It can’t be helped that their efforts to keep the game in the 70s were thwarted by 52.5 percent shooting from the field and 50 percent from three-point range.

But it’s also how they’re starting to win games. Leaders are starting to lead. Idris Hilliard has upped his play, scoring in double-figures in each of the Hawks last three wins despite averaging only eight points per game this season. He asserted his dominance on the Duquense game in a way I’ve rarely seen him since the days in which his defenders were preoccupied with a man named Ahmad Nivins. Hilliard’s ability to be productive in the post set an early tone, and let the Dukes know they were in for a game.

Martelli often talks about seniors getting a certain look in their eyes as the end of their Hawk career nears. Hilliard is playing like he knows the feeling.

But it’s not just confined to the senior swing man. Charoy Bentley had nine big points against the Dukes via three massive three-pointers on four attempts. Todd O’Brien, a veteran by this team’s standards, had the pivotal rebound in overtime against George Washington to preserve the victory.

Carl Jones is owning the point guard position, becoming a pass-first player in the lane. It’s directly benefitting Ronald Roberts (double-figures scoring in three of his last four outings, including a massive first half against the Dukes) and CJ Aiken (who’s embracing his bench role).

This is a team who is fighting for each other, finally executing and buying into what Martelli has been preaching less than successfully all season. They’re fighting for the family Galloway described in the tournament preview.

They’ve realized they had to go back to square one, and the fact that they face the same three opponents with which they opened the conference slate shouldn’t be lost on them.

Even if it doesn’t result in an NCAA bid, as all rational thought and experience suggests, this week gives the rebuilding Hawks on cornerstone upon which to place next the future.

And hey, who’s going to tell these young kids they’re not allowed to dream for a week.

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