After Saint Joseph's win over La Salle on Saturday, Hawks coach Phil Martelli gave credit to the team's seniors for the job they've done during the program's best start since 2007-08.
At halftime of tonight's game against Rhode Island, Saint Joseph's trailed by eight points as they headed into the locker room. The Hawks were in desperate need of energy and a change in mentality after they slowly prodded through the opening twenty minutes of the first half.
Appropriately, Ronald Roberts stepped up to the task in the second half.
Roberts led all scorers with 18 points and was at times unstoppable in the second half as Saint Joseph's came back from a deficit as large as ten points to score a 57-54 win at the Ryan Center on Wednesday evening.
The lead changed hands six times during the opening eight minutes of the first half as the game was played at a relatively slow pace, which seemingly favored Rhode Island.
Saint Joseph's (18-7, 8-3 Atlantic 10) grabbed their last lead of the opening half on a Halil Kanacevic dunk at the 12:06 mark.
Rhode Island (11-16, 2-10 A-10) ended the first half on a 13-4 run and Jarelle Reischel's three-pointer with 17 seconds remaining before the break gave the Rams a 33-25 advantage.
Things did not immediately improve for the Hawks early in the second half, as the Hawks had three turnovers in the first four minutes, failing to take advantage of several early second half opportunities. During one particular sequence, Saint Joseph's had a four-on-two fast break, but Chris Wilson threw a pass several feet out of bounds, erasing a chance for an easy Hawks basket.
A few minutes later the Hawks would begin to take charge as Saint Joseph's used a 12-2 run to tie the game up at 40 with 9:57 to play on a Roberts layup.
During the course of the surge by St. Joe's, DeAndre Bembry continued his impressive play. He knocked down an open three-pointer and then seconds later drove to the basket for a lay-up. Bembry finished the game with 12 points despite struggling with foul trouble throughout.
Saint Joseph's made the final push in a forty second span with a pair of Roberts free throws giving the Hawks the lead before a straight-on three-pointer from Papa Ndao gave Saint Joseph's their largest lead of the game, 53-48, with 4:37 to play.
In a key sequence during the final minute of the contest, Halil Kanacevic grabbed an offensive rebound after a missed three-pointer from Wilson and then 25 seconds later drove to the basket uncontested for a layup to give the Hawks a three point cushion, 57-54 with 34 seconds on the clock.
Rhode Island had two chances to tie the game as Xavier Munford missing a three-pointer with 17 seconds left, but the ball went out of bounds off of Langston Galloway, giving Danny Hurley a chance to call a timeout to draw up a final play.
Saint Joseph's defended magnificently on the final possession and the three-point attempt from E.C. Matthews was well short of the mark as the horn sounded, signifying the Hawks escape from the Ryan Center.
Kanacevic was the other double-figure scorer for Saint Joseph's, compiling 12 points in the victory. Galloway also met another landmark in his exceptional Saint Joseph's career as he passed Ahmad Nivins for fourth on the all-time scoring list in program history despite scoring nearly 11 points below his season average, netting just six points on the evening.
Matthews led Rhode Island with 17 points while Gil Biruta, the transfer from Rutgers, scored 10 points in the Rams sixth consecutive defeat.
A loss in this game for Saint Joseph's would have been debilitating in their quest to garner an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Instead, the Hawks found a way to grind out an important victory at a critical point in their season, moving into a second place tie in the Atlantic 10 standings with VCU in the process.
In the latest bracketology projection from ESPN's Joe Lunardi, Saint Joseph's would be the second to last team to grab a bid to the NCAA Tournament, putting the Hawks in the "First Four."
Saint Joseph's returns home to Hagan Arena to match wits with Fordham on Saturday afternoon with tip-off slated for 2 p.m. against another team towards the bottom of the Atlantic 10 standings. Fordham's record stands at just 2-9 in conference play.
Saint Joseph's won both of their meetings with Fordham last season, including a decisive 82-56 win over the Rams which clinched an Atlantic 10 Tournament berth for the Hawks last March.