Ndao is the hero for the Hawks

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Saint Joseph's Papa Ndao celebrates a three pointer against Dayton during the 2nd half at the semifinals of the Atlantic 10 Tournament at the Barclays Center, Brooklyn, NY, Saturday, March 12, 2016. St Joe's beats Dayton 82-79 to advance to the Atlantic 10 finals.STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

NEW YORK - Maybe it wasn't the career St. Joseph's senior Papa Ndao expected to have - "He expected one this high," Hawks coach Phil Martelli said Saturday afternoon, raising his hand to the approximate height of his tallest regular.

It's possible, though, to have a career's worth of memories in minutes. Without three minutes worth of late-game jump shots from Ndao, St. Joseph's would likely not be playing Sunday for an Atlantic Ten championship.

You pronounce Papa's last name Now, appropriate enough for the urgency of Saturday's situation as the Hawks barely held on against Dayton at the Barclays Center.

"Every shot that he took today," Hawks star DeAndre' Bembry said, "was a big shot."

With just over eight minutes left, the 6-foot-8 forward hit a three to double a three-point Hawks lead. Same scenario with 6½ minutes left. Then Ndao pump-faked and found space for himself with 5:23 left, giving more breathing room, pushing a six-point lead to nine. St. Joe's needed every breath, beating the A-10's top seed, 82-79.

Ndao's 14 points were a career high, his four three-pointers another career best. The reason Ndao is still on the team as a fifth-year senior is because he sat out last season with a serious medical condition that he declines to name.

"You have to understand this - like last October, I was standing in front of a doctor and the doctor wasn't talking about when he would be back to play," Martelli said. "The doctor was talking about if he could get out of bed and function. So this was like serious stuff . . . he was scared that day."

Sitting out last season, Ndao said, "it was tough, but I tried to keep my mind off it as much as I could. Just try to get better at basketball in a different way, less physically, trying to learn more from the coaches, just the little details of the game. That's what kept my mind going basketball-wise."

What's the best way to explain to people what kept him out last season? "Just health reasons," Ndao said. "I just don't want to say anything."

His minutes off the bench have been important all season for St. Joe's. He's been part of a puzzle that wouldn't quite fit or add up to a 26-7 without any of the regulars beyond stars Bembry and Isaiah Miles.

"You know what's crazy, every day in practice he asks how he can be more involved in the offense and we tell him, 'Pop, that's your offense - pick and pop,' " Hawks assistant Dave Duda said. "You show him on tape, that's your shot. And we have total confidence in him. I think he gets down on himself when he misses one or two. Today, he finally had one of those senior games."

Ndao was in that game right then because "one of the things Pop gives us - his feet are slow, but he's physical in the post," Duda said. Against Dayton, the Hawks needed as much of that as they could get. The Flyers don't lack for toughness inside.

"I just wanted to make the right play," Ndao said later, talking specifically about the last three that went down, how the defender "was trying to play two people," Ndao and Bembry. "I was just reading him, seeing what he's doing to decide. If he was going to leave me open, I was going to take the shot."

Asked about Ndao, Martelli said with a great deal of fondness, "He's a stubborn - an old spirit. He's been an old spirit since we got him. He has a self-confidence in terms of basketball, but he has a self-confidence in school."

His relatives at home in Dakar, Senegal's capital city, are watching all this live, Ndao said. They stream all the games.

"You know, he's very private. I don't know that much," Martelli said of Ndao's life in Senegal. "What I hope is that he's enjoyed the experience. I can't tell you he's enjoyed the experience. Because he had the health scare."

The best part, Martelli said, "every guy in that locker room, they all are ecstatic for him."

As it happens, CBS, looking for color material for its NCAA coverage, was on Hawk Hill last week shooting Ndao playing chess with Miles. They had picked Ndao for a feature. They might have to add some footage.

On this day, Ndao took all the shots, the ones he made and the ones he missed - "with a belief in my ability to execute the perfect shot. Sometimes it goes, sometimes it doesn't."

mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus