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March 15, 2016

For Bembry and St. Joe’s, tourney marks the end of season full of comebacks

Reflecting after capturing a second conference title in three years on Sunday afternoon in Brooklyn, Phil Martelli came to a realization.

“That’s the biggest basket of the weekend,” Martelli said. “I haven’t said anything to my team about it, nor has anyone said anything about it to me. That’s the one that kind of broke the dam, so to speak.”

Martelli wasn’t talking about any of the Hawks’ 35 field goals from the offensive clinic they put on against VCU in the Atlantic 10 title game, in which they shot a patently absurd 72 percent inside the arc. He wasn’t mentioning a play from Saturday’s win over top-seeded Dayton, either.

Nope, Martelli was singling out a driving basket by star swingman DeAndre’ Bembry on Friday afternoon that cut George Washington’s lead to 49-35 at the half. Bembry drove the ball quickly in transition, took a ton of contact, and still found a way to finish in traffic. It was a grown man’s drive.

“We were down 16 and everybody in the whole place has their head down, and he gets the ball and drives it to the basket,” Martelli said.

“I definitely wanted to get a quick bucket just to keep our blood flowing,” Bembry said.

In real time, it can be difficult to recognize the significance of something like that impressive driving finish. Rightfully so, the focus was on St. Joe’s hemorrhaging open threes against George Washington’s big lineup. Now armed with the knowledge of the Hawks storming out of the locker room and never looking back all weekend, the importance of the play is obvious.

Heading into Friday night’s 8-9 tilt against Cincinnati in Spokane, Bembry’s bucket is part of a larger trend for these Hawks: Even when things aren’t going their way, Martelli’s team just keeps coming at you. Just like a certain mascot, they never stop.

In the big picture, St. Joe’s has been fighting back from adversity all season. After winning a conference title in 2014, the Hawks lost a key group of seniors and hardly defended their crown with a very disappointing 13-18 season last year.

“Most of the guys were on the team last year, one of the worst teams in the A-10,” Bembry said. “80 percent of the guys from last year were on this team, so I’m happy to see that we’ve gone through the struggles together and now we’re going through the highs together.”

Martelli talks quite a bit about the idea of “noise,” specifically that which came from Hagan Arena during summer workouts. NBA scouts, who flocked to Hawk Hill to watch Bembry, would compliment the longtime coach about how much his team clearly liked playing together. The gym was loud, in a positive way.

Whether or not the Hawks would eventually put everything together on the floor, Martelli wasn’t as sure. But he figured the chemistry was already in place, and the credit for the turnaround primarily goes to the captain.

“Last year when you lose like that, everyone wants to look around and go, ‘He doesn’t do this and he doesn’t do that,’” Martelli said. “That’s human nature. And I give DeAndre’ a lot of credit because he kind of honed it in to say, ‘Nope, we’re not going that way. That’s not how we handle our business.”

From an execution standpoint, St. Joe’s was holding up that end of the bargain deep into the season. Led by Bembry and a gigantic breakout year from senior forward Isaiah Miles, the Hawks were looking pretty, pretty good for an at-large tournament bid heading into the last week of the season at 24-5.

(By the way, Miles’ improvement his last season has been ridiculous. Stats courtesy of KenPom.)

’15-16 (national rank)
 99.0129.1 (16)
TS% 50.865.5 (16)
 11.417.4 (450)

Then Saint Bonaventure’s Marcus Posley dropped 47 on them, followed by a mystifying home loss to a free-falling Duquesne team, followed by the aforementioned first-half haymaker by GW. The Hawks were still probably in the field of 68, but nobody wants to go into the tourney on a three-game losing streak.

Bembry got the Hawks a tough hoop, and everything rolled downhill from there. This shouldn’t have been all that surprising, as the man with the best afro on City Line Ave. had been there before.

“I guess I learned how to lose,” Bembry said of his trying sophomore year. “That was my first time losing like that ever in my life. Just being able to see both sides of it, from my freshman year and then seeing my sophomore year didn’t end how I wanted it to end.”

It’s probably safe to say that an Atlantic 10 title already qualifies as how Bembry wanted his season to end. Heading out west, we will see how long he and his teammates can extend it.

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann