WASHINGTON, D.C. – St. Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli isn’t a complete creature of habit, but he likes things that he is familiar with.
So down the stretch of the season, when his assistants told him that this particular group of players might have more success playing a zone defense, Martelli admitted it was a hard-sell.
Still, he conceded and the Hawks won six of their final seven games to earn the 4th seed in the Atlantic Ten tournament.
No.5 George Mason had beaten St. Joe’s twice during the regular season on buzzer-beating three-pointers, but the story of each game was that the Patriots had established big leads that the Hawks had to fight back against.
George Mason didn’t jump to a big lead on Friday. St. Joe’s had a one-point at the lead. The assistants, however, still thought they might be better off going Zone-exclusive for the final 20 minutes.
They were right.
Cutting off drives to the basket, St. Joe’s turned Mason into a jump-shooting team on a day when the jump-shot wasn’t falling.
The Hawks limited the Patriots to 26.5 percent shooting and pulled away for a 68-49 win at the Capital One Arena.
St. Joe’s (16-15) will play top-seeded and 25th-ranked Rhode Island at 1 p.m. on Saturday.
“It’s another day,” Martelli said. “All we want to do is play on Sunday now.”
St. Joseph’s is still playing because it flipped the nature of play against George Mason (16-17).
In three of the four halves in the regular season, the Patriots scored more than 40 points. This time Mason didn’t reach 40 points until there were less than seven minutes remaining in the game.
The Hawks defense limited George Mason to 29.5 percent shooting and the Patriots went 2-for-25 on three-pointers. After having four double-digit scorers in the regular-season games, GMU only had Jaire Grayer (12 points) on Friday.
“When we’re playing defense in practice, there are times when we’re almost fighting each other,” said senior guard Shavar Newkirk, who had 13 points and five assists. “Coach told us to translate that onto the court when we’re actually in a game against an opponent.
“I always knew we had that grind-it-out-tough mentality in us.”
St. Joe’s is better off when games are in the 60s or low 70s. The Hawks were 3-11 in games when the surrendered 75 points or more.
Since they started using their zone, they only gave up 75 points once – a 79-76 loss to George Mason.
“[The zone] is part of this run we’ve been on,” Martelli said. “We’ve won seven of eight. That zone has been good to us.”
Nick Robinson scored 14 with nine rebounds will Taylor Funk had a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds for the Hawks.