St. Joe's holds off Wake

Led by Nelson and West, top-seeded Hawks reach Elite Eight with 84-80 win

`Best story in college basketball'

St. Joe's improves to 30-1, will face Oklahoma State in East Rutherford final

Ncaa Tournament

March 26, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The little team that could, did. Again.

Top-seeded but much-maligned Saint Joseph's continued to confound its opponents and silence its critics, including one sitting courtside at Continental Airlines Arena for last night's NCAA tournament Sweet 16 game against No. 4 seed Wake Forest.

With senior All-America point guard Jameer Nelson and junior shooting guard Delonte West each scoring 24 points, the Hawks nearly blew an 11-point lead in the final six minutes but hung on to win, 84-80, before a sellout crowd of 19,557 and Wake Forest alum Billy Packer.

The victory put Saint Joseph's (30-1) into tomorrow's East Rutherford Regional final against second-seeded Oklahoma State, which earlier in the night beat No. 3 seed Pittsburgh, 63-51. The winner will advance to next week's Final Four in San Antonio.

Asked whether he might gloat a little after quieting CBS TV analyst Packer, with whom he made peace here at practice Wednesday, Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli said: "It's really not about sticking out our chests. We are one of the best teams in the country. This is the best story in college basketball."

The story could even get better. This marks the first time since 1981 that the Hawks have reached the Elite Eight, with a chance to go their first Final Four since 1961. The defeat ended the season for Wake Forest (21-10), but not before the Demon Deacons gave Saint Joseph's a bit of a scare.

Trailing 70-59 with 5:50 left in the game, Wake Forest cut its deficit to two, 79-77, on a three-point shot by Justin Gray (23 points) with 44 seconds to go. Nelson missed a drive for the Hawks, but freshman forward Chet Stachitas scored his only basket of the game on a tip-in.

After Wake Forest's Chris Paul hit one of two free throws to make it 81-78, Nelson did the same after getting fouled. Gray made a layup with 12 seconds left to make it 82-80, but Nelson was able to squeeze himself out of a double team and get the ball to West, who was fouled and made two free throws to seal it.

"It felt like our whole season," said Paul, who was held to 11 points, mostly because of the defense of Saint Joseph's senior guard Tyrone Barley. "We wanted to get one more stop, and we had a lot of confidence that we would. But we didn't get that stop."

While their fans who made the drive up the New Jersey Turnpike from Philadelphia were delirious - many of them derisively chanting Packer's name at the end of the game - Martelli and his players were careful not to celebrate too soon.

Though they got over some early jitters by quickly erasing a couple of nine-point deficits in the first half to trail just 38-37 at halftime, the Hawks knew they should have had an easier time down the stretch rather than sweating it out until the final seconds.

"We do have some concerns. Our foul shooting has been a concern and will remain a concern, and we will talk about it when we get back to the hotel," said Martelli, whose Hawks shot 14-for-23 from the line. "They will be allowed to enjoy it until we get back to the hotel."

One area that shouldn't worry Martelli is his team's three-point shooting. The Hawks shot 12-for-24 from behind the line and got five threes in seven attempts from junior swingman Pat Carroll (17 points) and four of six from Barley (13 points).

"They made some dagger threes," said Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser, whose team made eight of 16 threes.

In the end, it might have just been a difference in experience. The Hawks, led by Nelson, overcame foul trouble on their two sophomore big men, forward John Bryant and center Dwayne Jones, as well as some mental lapses at the end of the game.

The Demon Deacons, meanwhile, don't have a senior in the rotation.

"We're trying to do something at Wake Forest," Prosser said. "This is not the end, as Churchill would say. The end is just the beginning. We have all these kids back."

It is simply an extension of the regular season for Saint Joseph's. When the Hawks went through the regular season unbeaten, they were doubted. When they lost badly to Xavier in the Atlantic 10 tournament, they were questioned some more.

Then came Packer, who said that the Hawks were undeserving of a No. 1 seed.

Asked whether he had anything to say to Packer, Nelson took the high road.

Sort of.

"You know as a player, I don't get into that," he said. "I leave it up to my coach. He does all the trash-talking."

Said Martelli: "As far as using it as motivation, it's a waste of time. These guys are self-motivated. The only motivation is to play the next game and try to prepare and win the next game."

With their fans, and maybe one fewer critic, in the house.

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