Hawks hope to continue to roll through March

SPOKANE, Wash. - The Spokane Arena overlooks what, decades ago, the locals termed the "fast water" of Spokane Falls, formed 15,000 or so years ago when Glacial Lake Missoula flowed down into the valley and slowly began to cut through the rocks. These days, suspension bridges overlook the majesty of the raging waters, the largest in-city waterfall in America.

If there is one thing Saint Joseph's would like to do in Friday night's NCAA game against glacial Cincinnati, it is play fast, like that water headed over the falls, play in the open court, play as few times as possible against the Bearcats' set defense.

The Hawks' final practice Thursday afternoon was 4 miles from their downtown hotel - at Spokane Community College, Big Foot towering over the lobby outside the gym entrance, reminders everywhere that this was the home of the Sasquatch.

Isaiah Miles was on the Hawks bench in their last NCAA game two years ago. And that is where he stayed, never getting into the overtime loss to Connecticut. This time, he may play every minute.

"I'm anxious," Miles said after practice. "I'm excited. I'm going to put those emotions to the side, because there's going to be a lot running through my head."

Miles is working on a school-record 34 double-figure games this season. Jameer Nelson had 32 in 2003-04, but played only those 32. This is Miles' 35th and, he hopes, counting for a team that is doing what every coach hopes for, playing its best basketball in mid-March.

"I think we showed that in the (Atlantic 10) championship game against VCU," Miles said. "We still have a lot in the tank, and I think we're ready to let that tank out this whole tournament."

Offense has been quite easy for the Hawks most of the season, especially lately. This will be more complicated.

"We're not going to drive and finish at the rim," said SJU assistant coach Dave Duda, who is in charge of the scouting report. "We're going to drive and have to play for the next guy. If we do that, we're going to get good shots and then it will be a matter of making shots."

If you want to look at one number during Friday's game, check out SJU's two-point percentage. The Hawks shoot a terrific 52.5 percent on twos, but the Bearcats are second nationally in two-point defense, holding teams to only 40.9 percent. If SJU wins that battle, it should win the game.

The Hawks are 31st nationally in offensive efficiency (1.13 ppp).

They turn it over only 10.1 times per game. They are an average three-point shooting team, thus the need to convert in the lane.

"We can finish around the rim," said Hawks star DeAndre' Bembry, who has scored 1,551 points in three seasons. "We have some of the best finishers in college basketball - James Demery, myself, Aaron Brown; even our point guards can finish around the rim."

One of those point guards is freshman Lamarr "Fresh" Kimble, who this time last year was playing in another AAA tournament, this time for a Pennsylvania state championship at Neumann-Goretti. Now he is playing for the Hawks, coming off a season-best nine assists in the A-10 championship game.

"I've been watching this ever since I can remember," Kimble said after practice.

He also said, "I'm just not looking to be here for one game."

If St. Joe's can get anywhere near 70 points, it should win. But this does not figure to be a high-scoring game. The Bearcats' style keeps them and their opponents in just about every game. Over the last three months, the Bearcats have been in 14 games decided by seven points or fewer, going 6-8.

"It's slow-paced," Duda said. "They're OK playing in the 50s and 60s."

Hawks coach Phil Martelli certainly knows the deal.

"We're going to have to play a straight-line game," he said. "We're going to have to shoot the ball like we think it's going in and not shoot it just to shoot it."

This St. Joe's team has already done more than even the most optimistic believers could have imagined. Martelli knew he had something special by the "noise." The players, he said, were always communicating on the court.

"I knew I had a team with a really good group of teammates," Martelli said. "Whether we were going to be good enough in basketball, I didn't know that until we formulated a plan and started to play the games and practice.

"I didn't have to worry about, 'Well, there's 30 NBA scouts coming through here and everybody's got to do something more, because they want their name and not just DeAndre's name in the scouts' (minds).' None of that. Every scout I knew that came through would stop after practice and say, 'Man, they really like playing together. They're really noisy.' "

Now, Martelli said, "we get a chance to go on the biggest stage." Before he got out of town, the coach left a few instructions.

"I do have to report I've got the library to agree that they're going to close at 9 o'clock on Friday night to allow the students to not be conflicted on whether they should watch the game or be studying, so parents out there can be assured they're going to be watching the game," he said.

They really like watching this St. Joe's team play. And they would like to see another game after this.

Just before the team left practice, with Sasquatch looming outside the gym door, they got together in a midcourt huddle and said in unison: "1-2-3, another one."

jerardd@phillynews.com

@DickJerardi

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