PHILADELPHIA — Before its game against Massachusetts on Saturday, Saint Joseph’s honored the 2003-04 Hawks squad that went to the Elite 8 of the NCAA tournament.
Then the current Hawks went out and showed why they could be the best team seen on Hawk Hill since Jameer Nelson and Delonte West led the team deep into March Madness.
Forward Halil Kanacevic led the way with 18 points, forward Ronald Roberts added 17 and Saint Joseph’s won for the sixth time in its last seven games, 73-68, over No. 19 Massachusetts.
The win gives the Hawks (15-6, 5-2 Atlantic 10) their best conference record after seven games since the 2007-08 season, but it certainly wasn’t easy.
“I don’t think we played that well in the second half at all,” SJU coach Phil Martelli said.
When UMass guard Chaz Williams picked off a pass and fed it to guard Derrick Gordon for a layup with 1:24 remaining in the game, the double-digit lead that Saint Joseph’s held for much of the game was completely gone.
After SJU guard Langston Galloway made one free throw, Williams responded by hitting just one of two. The rebound was batted around for a few tense seconds before winding up in the hands of Chris Wilson, who sank two from the line to put the Hawks up 70-68 with 30.1 seconds remaining.
Gordon then drove the baseline but coughed it up, putting SJU junior forward Papa Ndao on the line with 12.6 ticks left. Ndao hit both to make it a four-point game and, after a missed UMass 3-pointer, Galloway made 1 of 2 to provide for the final score.
“It was gutty, and we did what we had to do to win the game, but I’m concerned about offense,” Martelli said. “We’ve got to get back to being crisp and sharp, and that was neither crisp nor sharp.”
Four Hawks finished in double figures, with freshman wing DeAndre Bembry adding 13 points and eight rebounds and junior point guard Chris Wilson finishing with 12 points and six rebounds.
Williams, who was eighth in the conference in scoring (15.7 ppg) and tops in assists (7.3 apg), had three points and four assists at halftime but played a big role in helping Massachusetts make its final push. The 5-foot-7 dynamo finished with 16 points and 10 assists in 38 minutes.
Saint Joseph’s used the long ball effectively in the first half against Massachusetts, hitting five 3-point shots to take a 41-25 lead at halftime in front of a sold-out crowd.
“I thought we played great basketball for 20 minutes of a 40-minute game and probably the worst half of basketball we could play in the first half,” Massachusetts coach Derek Kellogg said. “From missed layups to just not a lot of energy to different things that you just can’t win on the road (doing).”
The 16-point advantage the Hawks held at the break was larger than any they held in the teams’ previous meeting, a 66-62 Minutemen win at UMass on Jan. 8. In that one, SJU was up by as many as nine in the second half before UMass clamped down on defense, ending the game on a 13-3 run to steal the victory.
For a few minutes Saturday, it looked like recent history was bound to repeat itself. This time, however, Saint Joseph’s was able to hang on.
“I think (revenge) definitely helped us out when we came out,” Kanacevic said. “We definitely were locked in, so people definitely had that in the back of our minds.”
The loss continues a tough skid for Massachusetts (17-4, 4-3 A-10), which had been ranked as high as No. 13 two weeks ago. The Minutemen lost for the third time in their last four games, part of a stretch that had them playing away from Mullins Memorial Center for the fifth time in six games.
“If you’re fatigued, then you can’t play that way in the second half,” Kellogg said. “Really it’s a mental thing with some of these guys that they need to bring it. We’re not deep enough to not have our top eight guys bring it every night out.”
NOTES: Massachusetts redshirt senior Chaz Williams and Saint Joseph’s redshirt senior Halil Kanacevic were both freshmen together at Hofstra during
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