Coming into the final game of a key three-game homestand, Saint Joseph's faced off against a VCU team known for their hustle and aggressive style. The "Havoc" style, as championed by VCU coach Shaka Smart, has resulted in the Rams forcing an average of over 19 turnovers a game, best in the nation, mainly due to high energy and hustle.
On Saturday night at Hagan Arena it was Saint Joseph's who made the hustle plays on their way to a much-needed 69-62 victory over VCU.
The game began with enormous energy from both teams as the lead changed hands ten times within the first ten minutes of the contest as a Ronald Roberts jumper put Saint Joseph's up 19-18 midway through the opening half.
Roberts bucket was the first during an 7-2 run for the Hawks which allowed them to open up a 26-20 lead with 5:58 to go in the first half, prompting Smart to use a timeout.
The Hawks were superior on the offensive glass during the first half, corralling 9 offensive boards with a put-back slam by Langston Galloway energizing the crowd and giving Saint Joseph's (16-7, 6-3 Atlantic 10) a 30-24 lead with just over four minutes remaining in the first half.
Nearly three minutes later, a three-pointer from DeAndre Bembry helped the Hawks open up their largest lead of the half, putting St. Joe's up by double-digits, 34-24. Saint Joseph's would take a 34-26 lead into the locker room.
VCU (19-5, 7-2 A-10) began the second half on a 9-2 run as Smart was urging to see more energy out of his team and back-to-back three-pointers from Melvin Johnson suddenly had the Rams within three points with 14:12 to play.
Saint Joseph's responded with a 9-2 spurt of their own with the highlight play being an alley-oop dunk by Roberts, assisted by Halil Kanacevic on a beautiful press-break by the Hawks which put the Hawk faithful into a frenzy.
VCU kept coming at St. Joe's in waves however and a layup by Jordan Burgess once again had the Rams back within five, 51-46, with just over nine minutes on the clock.
A couple of moments later, St. Joe's would score seven straight points with Roberts once again putting the exclamation point on the run with another high-flying alley-oop slam on a press-break, this time the assist came from Bembry, giving the Hawks a game-high 13 point lead, 63-50 with 5:56 left.
VCU continued to show dogged determination though and would score the next ten points, holding Saint Joseph's without a field goal for almost four and a half minutes and closing the deficit to 63-60 with under two minutes to play.
It was 65-62 St. Joe's in the final minute when the officials made a pivotal call. With 33 seconds left, Graham was called for a charge drawn by Kanacevic. On the replay, Kanacevic did not appear to be set and the play could have easily been ruled a block, which would have sent Graham to the charity stripe while fouling out the Hawks senior forward. Smart was irate after the call and fortunate not to be called for a technical foul.
One of Saint Joseph's great struggles this season has been at the free throw line, where the Hawks have only made 62% of their shots from the charity stripe on the season. However, Galloway and Chris Wilson each showed nerves of steel as they knocked down their respective free throws in the final 30 seconds to seal the victory for St. Joe's.
Galloway recovered from his scoring slump to lead all scorers with 24 points while Bembry had his second-highest point total of his sterling freshman campaign, netting 18 points. The duo combined to go 16-for-27 from the field while the rest of the Hawks combined to make just 9 of their 31 field goal attempts.
VCU had four double-digit scorers, led by Reddic with 17 points while Johnson came off the bench to add 14 points in 23 minutes in a losing effort.
Saint Joseph's did very well in two specific areas in this game; limiting their turnovers as they committed just 12, and on the glass where they owned a 39-35 advantage which was much larger until the furious late rush from the Rams.
In this pivotal three-game home stretch Saint Joseph's managed to win two of their three games while defeating two teams residing in the top-30 of the RPI. This leaves the Hawks in a reasonable position to control their NCAA Tournament fate heading into the final month of the regular season.
The Hawks have a week off before another crucial conference and Big Five bout against La Salle next Saturday at Tom Gola Arena. It will be an early tip scheduled for 11 a.m. with a national broadcast slated for ESPNU.
In last season's showdown between the two teams, the Explorers back-court carved up the Hawks in a convincing double-digit victory. The Explorers are 5-3 in Atlantic 10 play and lost a heart-breaker to Saint Louis, 69-67 on Saturday. Conversely, as you likely remember, St. Joe's was dominated by Saint Louis on Wednesday, falling to the Billikens by double-digits.