St. Joe's young players pick a good time to grow up

ATLANTIC CITY - Twenty years ago, the Atlantic 10 Tournament was played at the Palestra. The Saint Joseph's coach was John Griffin. Phil Martelli was one of his assistants. Bernard Blunt and Rap Curry were the kids in the backcourt. It was one of the all-time Hawk-will-never-die specials.

Entering the tournament with 11 wins, they beat Rhode Island in overtime in the preliminary round. Then they came from nine points down in the last 3 1/2 minutes of regulation and beat top-seeded Rutgers, also in OT. You can imagine what the building was like the third night, when the Hawks went to overtime again. They lost that one, though, to George Washington.

Martelli remembered back yesterday, trying to draw a parallel, trying to make the point that the future is never guaranteed. He said, "We came back the next year and there was, 'Rap Curry and Bernard Blunt. Are they the best backcourt in America, the best young backcourt, blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah.' And Rap gets hurt.

"These experiences, for these players, should move them to want to get back in the gym."

The Hawks are in the middle of one of those runs again. Left for dead, a team with only five wins at the beginning of February, they are still hanging around. Needing to win at Charlotte last Saturday even to get into the A-10 Tournament as the 12th seed, they won. Then they went on the road to GW on Tuesday in the first round, blew a big lead and still won in overtime. Then, in yesterday's quarterfinals, they blew another big lead and still won in overtime over Duquesne, 93-30.

Next is Dayton, this afternoon at Boardwalk Hall. However that one ends, the last couple of weeks have given a very young team the kind of positive reinforcement that only winning can provide. To win three elimination games in a row guarantees nothing, and that is true. Still, the path to the future now seems better defined.

Look at yesterday's box score. Carl Jones, a sophomore guard, led the Hawks with 28 points, and freshman forward Ronald Roberts was next with 19 and nine rebounds. While it is true that senior Idris Hilliard had 18 and nine and another senior, Charoy Bentley, had the assist of the game, a pass that led to a Roberts dunk that tied the game at the end of the second half, the story of this season has been the youth on the Hawks' roster and the collective struggle to improve.

Now, they have seen their way out of the wilderness.

"Yeah, but I don't want to sell anything false," Martelli said. "I don't want to tell everybody, 'Hey, everything's all right, forget the fact that we didn't win a game in January.' No. We have done, and I'm not going to say this egotistically, but we have done what I believe a coach is charged with - and that is, play your best basketball at the end of the year.

"Now, it could have ended in Charlotte and I could have been walking around saying, 'No, you don't understand. We were really playing well at the end of the year.' So that was significant, to get to Tuesday. Tuesday was significant to get this experience. But it's not false.

"I can't go into the summer and say, 'Well, yeah, Ron Roberts, in a big game, he'll give us 19 next year.' Because I look at the other side and say, 'God bless us, Langston [Galloway, a freshman guard] was 2-for-10.' C.J. [Aiken, another freshman] had a play that should have been in the NBA dunk contest and he George Gervined it. He doesn't even know who George Gervin is and he George Gervined it."

Martelli was pantomiming an errant finger roll as he spoke, and everybody around him laughed. It was the day of his 300th win with the Hawks. His voice broke for a second when he recalled his hiring, when a former St. Joe's coach, the late Jim Boyle, told him that he hoped Phil kept the job long enough to lose 100 games. That was Bo, by the way - someone who could view success from such a cockeyed angle.

Speaking of which: A lot of this does not make sense, and that's fine. It is actually part of the fun. But you cannot have a future until you have a present; it is a law of physics, or something. And these final games of what is now an 11-21 season have, at the very least, altered the present in a significant way.

"Look," Martelli said, "this isn't house money because we know, if we lose, we're going home. So it's not house money. But, God bless us, what a tremendous feeling to empty your tank and now go back to the hotel and say, hey, you're going to get a chance to play one more time. That's what this is supposed to be about, I think."

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