Saint Joseph's has had their opportunities to gain wins against top-25 opposition this season. Prior to Saturday night, they had fallen short in their previous attempts to gain a scalp against a nationally ranked team, including a tough four-point loss against Massachusetts in January.
On Saturday night the Hawks were finally able to close out a game against a ranked team this season.
Despite a late charge by their opponents, Saint Joseph's hung on to knock off Massachusetts 73-68 at Hagan Arena, netting their first win against a ranked opponent since a November 2012 win over Notre Dame in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.
Saint Joseph's (15-6, 5-2 Atlantic 10) was in control for the vast majority of the contest, trailing for less than two minutes of game time on the evening.
Despite that, Massachusetts (18-4, 4-3 A-10) battled back late in the proceedings as the Minutemen press gave the Hawks fits in the final minutes.
Massachusetts went on a 19-8 run over a seven minute period to tie the game up with 38 seconds remaining after Chaz Williams netted one of two free throws.
After Williams missed the second free throw, the Minutemen pulled down three offensive rebounds but could not get a shot to fall, eventually fouling St. Joe's Chris Wilson with 30 seconds left after the Hawks junior guard finally came away with a defensive rebound.
Wilson calmly knocked down both free throws to give Saint Joseph's a two-point advantage.
After Minutemen coach Derek Kellogg called a timeout to set up a play, Derrick Gordon turned the ball over under the Hawks basket, with Papa Ndao corralling the ball away from Gordon with 13 seconds to play.
Ndao was also cool under pressure and hit both free throws to give St. Joe's a two-possession lead. Sampson Carter then missed a three-pointer for Massachusetts with Langston Galloway coming away with possession and knocking down one of two free throws to wrap up a much-needed win for the Hawks.
The game was played at a stuttering pace as the officials called 45 fouls on the evening while missing several other seemingly obvious foul calls, drawing the ire of the coaches of both teams as well as the fans.
Saint Joseph's took control of the game in the closing minutes of the first half as they ended the half on a 20-8 run to take a 41-25 lead into the locker room.
The Hawks had a double-digit lead with five minutes remaining before the late Massachusetts run made for a frantic finish.
Hawks coach Phil Martelli thought it could have been a less stressful final few moments. "“We played a nice team game, even with that we left a lot of points on the board," the long-time Hawks sideline leader noted.
Halil Kanacevic impressed once again as he led Saint Joseph's with 18 points along with 6 rebounds and 5 assists while Ronald Roberts netted 17 points with 6 rebounds. DeAndre Bembry added 13 points and 8 rebounds with Wilson scoring 12 points.
“He (Kanacevic) knows people gave up on this team when they were 4-4 and he doesn’t like that,” Martelli said of the St. Joe's senior forward who has upped his game significantly since the Hawks 30-point loss at the hands of Villanova in December. The Hawks have won 11 of their 13 games since the thrashing they took in the "Holy War".
Gordon, who chose Massachusetts over St. Joe's after transferring from Western Kentucky, led all scorers with 21 points while Williams had a strong second half and finished with a double-double, scoring 16 points and dishing out 10 assists.
Saint Joseph's now has a real chance to put themselves in the conversation for an NCAA Tournament berth. The Hawks welcome nationally-ranked Saint Louis next to Hagan Arena for a 7 p.m. tip on Wednesday evening in the second game of this potentially season-defining three-game homestand.
The Billikens needed overtime to knock off George Mason on Saturday afternoon, eventually coming away with a 87-81 win which moved them to 7-0 in Atlantic 10 play.
Saint Joseph's has lost their last 7 games against Saint Louis, with their last victory against the Billikens coming in an Atlantic 10 Tournament contest in March of 2006.