Hawks seniors finally get to dance
BROOKLYN, N.Y. - Phil Martelli is almost never wrong.
Not about his basketball team, sequestered on Hawk Hill in Martelli's tiny fiefdom, all things within his gaze.
He's wrong about this team. Just a little.
Martelli thinks this St. Joseph's team was propelled to the Atlantic 10 Tournament title yesterday by a 10-day trip it took to Italy in August. There, Martelli picked up a rosary ring blessed by the Pope and watched a minor miracle unfold: His assemblage of modestly talented players traipsed through the Old Country as giddy as middle-school kids. They rode in gondolas, posed at the feet of David and ate curious food that bore no resemblance to an Olive Garden menu.
This time, Martelli is wrong about what set this group toward a No. 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a first-round game against No. 7 Connecticut in Buffalo on Thursday.
It wasn't sharing cannoli and scallopini.
It was beans and rice, queso burritos and chicken quesadillas.
That's what seniors Ronald Roberts, Halil Kanacevic and Langston Galloway ate at the Qdoba just off campus last March.
A week before, St. Joe's was knocked out of the NIT in the first round. It was the second time in as many seasons that happened. Galloway, Roberts and Kanacevic had one more chance to leave a better legacy at St. Joe's. Over chips and salsa, they vowed to avert mediocrity.
"We didn't want to go out like that," Roberts said.
Then they lost their last two regular-season games this season.
They had 21 wins and a No. 4 seed in the A-10 Tournament, but they needed at least one more win to ensure an NCAA slot. Galloway gave it to them with a last-minute jumper against Dayton on Friday. They avoided top seed Saint Louis, thanks to St. Bonaventure's upset win Friday, then beat the Bonnies on Saturday.
In the final yesterday, the Hawks outlasted one of the game's young coaching geniuses, Shaka Smart, and his deep, talented Rams, 65-61, for their first A-10 Tournament title since 1997. It is their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2008, when they were a No. 11 seed.
They didn't expect to miss the dance for 5 years.
The Hawks managed 18 wins last year and 20 the year before. They felt like they underachieved.
"In the past few years, we might have had more talent," Kanacevic said. "But this team, by far, has more character."
No one needed more growth of character than Kanacevic, a 6-8, Hedo Turkoglu archetype from Staten Island with a mouth that never stopped. Before this season, he would rather complain than compete.
He was hit with more technical fouls in his first season, 2011-12, than any other Hawk got in their career, Martelli said. Kanacevic's most notorious tech came in his second season with St. Joe's, on Dec. 11, 2012, when he flipped the bird to the Villanova crowd during a Holy War loss on national television.
He was suspended for a week and he missed two games.
"It was the worst week of my life. It was like being in solitary confinement," said Kanacevic as he held the tournament MVP trophy yesterday. "If you'd have told me then that all this was going to happen to me, I'd have told you that you were crazy."
Kanacevic averaged 15.3 points, 14.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists in the three games. He would have deserved the MVP even if St. Joe's had lost.
"That incident made him a better player and a better person," said assistant coach Mark Bass, who scored more than 1,200 points at St. Joe's. "When I played games at Villanova, I wanted to do what he did all the time. But you've got to look at the big picture."
Kanacevic began sketching this season's picture a year ago over his queso burrito, but, certainly, the picture grew in form and color in the canals of Venice.
For instance, Roberts, the team's soft-spoken big brother, sought out freshman DeAndre Bembry for inclusion in Italy. Yesterday, Bembry shredded VCU's "Havoc" defense, and his second-half dunk over 6-6, 250-pound bodybuilder Mo Alie-Cox turned the game back St. Joe's way.
Bembry finished with 13 points and eight assists. Like his teammates, he was indifferent that the selection committee appeared to devalue their A-10 title run. Saint Louis lost in the first round of the A-10 Tournament and got a No. 5 seed, as did VCU. Massachusetts got a No. 6 seed despite finishing below St. Joe's, George Washington (ninth seed) and Dayton (11th).
St. Joe's could play second-seeded Villanova if both teams win Thursday.
"That's all right," Bembry said. "We're in."
Bembry, the conference's co-freshman of the year, is this team's future.
The seniors are its present.
Roberts, whose Dominican heritage gave him that love for beans and rice, was 6-for-6 from the field yesterday. He scored 15 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and had the decisive block at the game's end. Galloway, who loves quesadillas, led the team with 19 points and averaged 22.7 in the tournament, showcasing himself nicely for the pro scouts in the crowd.
No one is more this team's present than Kanacevic: rough, talented, inexhaustible.
"He had a tough season last year, but you grow," said Kanacevic's father, Hidajet, who emigrated from the former Yugoslavia with Halil's mother before Halil was born. "Life makes you learn."
Hidajet yesterday saw his son play in college for only the third time. Halil's mother, Neziha, "Gets too nervous," Hidajet said. "She has seen him play only once."
She has at least one more chance.