ON HIS WAY into Hagan Arena Wednesday evening, Phil Martelli said a Saint Joseph's student yelled to him.
"We're in the tourney!" the student shouted, according to the coach, who is in his 21st season on City Avenue.
"You're right, we're in the Atlantic 10 Tourney. I know that for a fact," Martelli said back.
The student, of course, was talking about the 68-team NCAA Tournament. The one the Hawks missed out on last season, after getting in by winning the A-10 Tournament in 2014.
This season, St. Joe's probably won't need to run the table at the A-10 tourney in Brooklyn to hear its name called on Selection Sunday.
Many bracketologists, including resident St. Joe's bracket master Joe Lunardi, already had this season's Hawks in the NCAA Tournament. But Wednesday night's 79-70 win over No. 15 Dayton might have secured the Hawks' footing in the bracket.
Just don't tell that to Martelli, whose team earned its first win over a ranked opponent since it beat then-No. 23 Virginia Commonwealth to win that Atlantic 10 championship in 2014.
"For whatever the reason, maybe it's the fact that the pope visited here in September, but this group and I are on the same page," Martelli said. "We're on the same sentence and we're on the same word. This has nothing to do with March. This had only to do with the opportunity tonight to play in a big game. And tomorrow at 3:30, it has only to do with practice at 3:30. I don't talk about it."
Surely, others are.
"I think they're one of the best teams in the country," Dayton coach Archie Miller said. "I think they're gonna be primed for a great run in March, because of the matchup problems."
With the win, St. Joe's (22-4, 11-2 A-10), which was 28th in the latest Associated Press college basketball rankings, is tied atop the conference standings with Dayton and VCU. On Monday, the Hawks might just find themselves ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since their memorable 2003-04 season.
The Hawks, who led by nine at halftime and never led by less than five the rest of the way, were paced by DeAndre' Bembry (16 points, 13 rebounds) and Isaiah Miles (12 points, 12 rebounds). Freshman point guard Lamarr "Fresh" Kimble added 13 points and five assists in 21 minutes off the bench.
Dayton (21-4, 11-2), playing without third-leading scorer Kendall Pollard (knee), had five players in double figures, with Charles Cooke's 16 points leading the way.
After St. Joe's took a 63-50 lead with 7:40 to play, the Flyers made a late charge to make it interesting in the waning moments. But Miles and Kimble made crucial free throws down the stretch, and James Demery, who finished with 12 points, had a thunderous breakaway dunk in the final moments to preserve the victory.
"It obviously was a big game," said Bembry, who played all 40 minutes. "Of course, they have the No. 15 on their back. And it's definitely a game that we'll need further on after the (A-10 Tournament). Of course, we think about stuff like that. But first off, it's just about winning the game. It's just about winning the game. It's another game for us against another team that's now tied up with us for first place."
A frenetic first half started with a personal, 6-0 run from Aaron Brown, who scored 14 on the night, to ignite the raucous, capacity crowd. Dayton responded with a 7-0 run of its own to jump ahead, and the teams then traded punches until an 18-4 run from St. Joe's put the Hawks up, 35-24. That run was capped off with a corner three-pointer by Hawks graduate senior Papa Ndao.
The Hawks' lead was 36-27 at the break.
And on the biggest night of their season, they made sure never to relinquish it.
"I think this was a big game because of playing for first place," Martelli said. "I think the implications for March, (Dayton's) obviously a tournament team. We won a home game. I think the bigger implications are the road games."
The Hawks travel to Davidson on Saturday.