Bembry points St. Joe's to NCAA berth

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St. Joe's DeAndre' Bembry (43) goes up for a dunk past Fordham's Mandell Thomas (23) during the second half of a recent game.

St. Joseph's basketball coach Phil Martelli has described junior forward DeAndre' Bembry as the perfect engine to run this year's surprising team.

"His leadership is really extraordinary," Martelli said.

The coach and player clashed recently, but Martelli talks about the incident with pride.

After Bembry and teammate Isaiah Miles played all 40 minutes in a 78-70 win over visiting Massachusetts on Jan. 27, Martelli told both players they weren't practicing the next day.

"I made them sit out," Martelli said. "They played a hard 40 minutes."

And that is where the difference of opinion started.

"Both were at my door, saying: 'I am all right,' " Martelli said.

The veteran coach wouldn't budge, but he appreciated the discourse, especially from the 6-foot-6 Bembry, who is in his second year as team captain.

For Bembry, even missing out on a practice is considered loafing.

The junior is averaging 37.6 minutes per game, which was fourth in the country through Monday. It's also down from the 38.6 minutes he averaged last season when the Hawks, who made the NCAA tournament in Bembry's freshman year, slipped to 13-18.

St. Joseph's has more options this year, and Bembry doesn't have to do as much. But he still is doing an awful lot. Bembry is averaging 17.0 points per game, but Miles' emergence as the Hawks' leading scorer (17.3 ppg.) has provided a major lift.

Bembry is also averaging 8.0 rebounds, 4.7 assists, and 1.5 steals. Plus, Martelli assigns him to guard the opponent's top perimeter player, at least until sophomore James Demery enters the game.

Bembry refuses to say he is tired, although he concedes one small point.

"My body is a little sore. But I am in shape, so that helps a lot," Bembry said. "I feel I need to be on the court most of the time, even if I am a little tired."

Winning often masks fatigue. As a freshman, Bembry averaged 12.1 points for a veteran St. Joseph's team that earned an NCAA tournament berth. Last season, Bembry became the fifth player in school history to earn first-team all-Atlantic Ten honors as a sophomore. But he took little consolation since the Hawks were five games below .500.

St. Joseph's is 19-4 overall and 8-2 in the A-10 this season, and the winning has certainly revived Bembry. The Hawks, who have a challenging A-10 game on Wednesday at George Washington (18-5, 7-3), are clearly in the running for an NCAA berth although they are far from assured of anything at this juncture.

"The goal of every team is to get to the NCAA tournament," Bembry said. "I feel we are on the road to that, and we need to keep up to a certain level to get where we want."

If they get to where they want, it will be through the leadership of Bembry, who is among 10 watch-list finalists for the first-ever Julius Erving small forward of the year award.

"I am thankful for it and would like to win it, of course. But I am just trying to get some wins," Bembry said.

He is driven by winning. Bembry experienced firsthand the excitement of the NCAA tournament, and he's consumed with returning to the dance.

Martelli has put a lot on Bembry, and he doesn't apologize because he sees that the captain can handle the heavy load.

The expectation for Bembry is just as much in practice as in the game - other than the rare forced day off.

"He understands with the mantle [as one of the top players] you have to be the hardest worker in practice," Martelli said. "And he is."

So Bembry grinds in practice and somehow finds another gear in the games. Whatever Martelli puts on his plate, Bembry is more than willing to accept.

"I like having the pressure on myself," Bembry said. "I feel I can deal with pressure a lot better than other people can."

mnarducci@phillynews.com

@sjnard

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