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March 13, 2016

Saint Joseph’s 87, VCU 74: Hawks roll to A-10 title behind scorching shooting

BROOKLYN -- Make it two in three years for the Saint Joseph’s Hawks.

On Sunday afternoon at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Phil Martelli’s No. 4 Hawks captured another Atlantic 10 title over No. 2 Virginia Commonwealth, 87-74. 

This title was won with spectacular offense by the guys from City Line Ave. St. Joe’s was lights out from start to finish, shooting an absurd 64.9 percent from the field and dishing out 19 assists to only 7 turnovers. Whether it was in the halfcourt or transition, against man-to-man or zone, or dealing with whatever VCU threw at them, the Hawks sliced and diced the 16th best defense in the country according to Ken Pomeroy.

"We just wanted to punch first," Aaron Brown said after contributing 13 points. "In the previous two games, VCU got out to hot starts and it really wasn't close. They weren't really challenged."

Martelli cutting down the nets. from Rich Hofmann on Vimeo.

The Hawks took a 43-34 lead into the locker room, which might have been mildly concerning considering how well they shot in the first half. They weren't making contested jumpers or difficult shots, though. VCU, which wasn't playing their trademark brand of "Havoc" defense, surrendered 54 points in the paint to the Hawks.

St. Joe's could keep up the hot shooting because they were getting layups. Martelli thought that a major offensive performance against VCU would require a ton of expert three-point marksmanship from his team. Instead, they rang up 87 points despite shooting just 2-8 from deep and a yucky 15-28 from the line. From an execution standpoint, this was likely SJU's best offensive performance of the season.

"The cutting and their implementation of a plan that we put together in a hotel room last night," Martelli said when asked how his team was able to score at will.

St. Joe’s arguably had the two best players in the Atlantic 10 this season, and they were both superb on Sunday. DeAndre' Bembry went for 30 points on 13-16 shooting, while Isaiah Miles had 26 points on 11-16 shooting. Both players made the all-tournament team along with Brown, while Miles was the most outstanding player. In the second half, Miles also laid the wood on VCU's JeQuan Lewis:

In front of a decent crowd in Brooklyn, the Hawks did a good job of preventing the sizable VCU contingent from being much of a factor.

"The basketball, that was special," Martelli said. "The ball movement, the shot confidence. It started in the beginning, we took the ball at them. We knew that they would be fierce."

After a shaky half on Friday against George Washington, St. Joe’s was clearly the best team in Brooklyn (maybe including the Nets). Picked to finish seventh in the preseason poll, Martelli’s team will watch its name get called from their hotel in New York later tonight.

The Hawks led by 21 in the second half, but a crucial (and fairly bizarre) double technical foul assessed to Papa Ndao turned the tide back in VCU’s favor. The Rams got the game to back within single digits, but they just couldn’t make enough of their open threes. VCU only shot 7-29 from behind the arc for the game.

Martelli wasn't making any excuses for Ndao, the senior reserve who starred in the Hawks' win over Dayton on Saturday.

"The referees came over and were explaining things in a vehement way," Martelli said. "I said, 'You don't have to explain anything to me, I'm cool.' That was embarrassing to the league."

Ndao's situation will likely prove to be a footnote on an otherwise banner weekend for the Saint Joseph's men's basketball program. Martelli mentioned that he told his players last summer that they were the best team in the league. They proved that all weekend, starting on Friday until the red, white, and black balloons rained down on the Barclays Center hardwood.

"This is like a senior's dream, finishing as high as you possibly can," Miles said. "I'm glad all the work, all the summer work, and everything paid off.

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann