Despite hot shooting from three-point range in the first half, the Saint Joseph's Hawks could not win their Atlantic 10 opener, falling to nationally-ranked Butler 72-66 at Hagan Arena on Wednesday night.
The Hawks got off to a hot start as their first five made field goals were from three-point range as they built a quick 15-9 lead five minutes into the contest. Chris Wilson, only a 23% shooter from long range coming into the game, knocked down four three-pointers during that stretch.
The pace was electric during the first half, as was the atmosphere in Hagan Arena as Butler tried to slow down the game with little success as the Hawks took a 40-35 lead into the locker room.
The statistic that we all heard far too often during the off-season reared its ugly head again during the second half. The Hawks had leads in 11 of the 14 games they lost last season, many of those leads were at halftime. This season the Hawks have now had leads in four of their five losses.
Butler (13-2, 1-0 Atlantic 10) picked up their defense in the second half, as their aggressive man-to-man defense held Saint Joseph's (8-5, 0-1 A-10) to just 2-of-12 from beyond the arc after the break.
Rotnei Clarke put on a shooting clinic, particularly during the second half as the Bulldogs senior guard poured in 28 points on 6-of-10 shooting from three-point range. Clarke was the key component for Butler as he always seemed to make the timely play, whether it was knocking down a big shot, setting up a teammate for a key basket, or intensifying the ball pressure in the second half defensively.
"My teammates did a great job getting me the ball when I was open," Clarke modestly remarked after the game.
Saint Joseph's was very successful with its three-guard lineup of Wilson, Langston Galloway, Carl Jones along with C.J. Aiken and Ronald Roberts in the 1st half, but the quintet barely saw any time together during the second half, with Phil Martelli opting to instead give Halil Kanacevic extended second half minutes, usually at the expense of Wilson.
The Hawks offense was often stagnant after halftime, especially during the latter stages of the second half as Saint Joseph's had a stretch of over nine minutes without hitting a shot from the field.
Despite that, the Hawks were still in the game as Jones completed a traditional three-point play to bring St. Joe's to within two with 5:58 to play.
However, Saint Joseph's would never lead the game again as a combination of timely shots and solid defense put Butler over the top in the Bulldogs inaugural game in the Atlantic 10.
After the game Martelli defended his use of the bigger lineup in the second half. "The team that was out there at the end was the team we felt most comfortable with, the longtime Hawks coach remarked after the game before adding, "When we went with the three big players it kind of changed our offense, we wanted to put the ball inside and we were able to do that.”
Inside presence Andrew Smith added 24 points and 10 rebounds for the Bulldogs as Butler had a distinct 34-16 scoring advantage inside the paint over the course of the contest.
Wilson led the Hawks with 15 points, but he had no points and only one field goal attempt in the second half as his time on the floor was limited. Aiken added 13 points while Roberts scored 12 points and grabbed 9 rebounds on the night while Galloway finished with 11 points in the defeat.
In the end it was a bit of the same old story for Saint Joseph's. On a night where the Hawks could have made their presence in the Atlantic 10 race known with a win over a nationally-ranked team, the Hawks lacked execution on offense during the vital moments and gave away yet another second half lead.
Martelli took exception to the way the team's season has been covered to this point in his post game, saying "Is the sky falling like you've all been saying? That's simply not true." Martelli also disagreed with the notion that the team's 8-4 non-conference record made the team an underachiever to this point.
While typically an 8-4 non-conference mark would be a solid return, the expectations for this team are at a higher level than usual considering the team won 20 games last season and returned any player that played meaningful minutes last season. Add to that the fact that the Hawks non-conference slate was relatively soft and the use of the word underachieving seems justified.
While tonight was only the first game of a grueling 16-game conference schedule, the Hawks are still running out of chances to grab quality wins that will help build an NCAA Tournament resume.
If this Saint Joseph's team has dreams of making the big dance, they're going to have to come to grips with the reality that in order to do that, they'll need to hold onto a 2nd half lead every now and then.