You come to the gym every night because you never know what you might see. Could be the game where a great player gives a transcendent performance. Could be the night where a huge underdog plays perfectly and springs an upset nobody forgets. Could be the game where the home team does not score for the game's first 7 minutes and does not make a basket for the first 15.
That was Saint Joseph's last night at the Fieldhouse against Holy Cross. For quite a long time, the Hawks had more turnovers than rebounds or points. The Hawks missed 11 shots before they made one. They trailed 12-0. It seemed worse.
The wonderful thing about the game is that teams play 40 minutes. The Hawks finally got their offensive legs. But Holy Cross kept running its stuff, kept making baskets when it had to make baskets and never gave up the lead, winning 71-66.
"I liked them on tape," Hawks coach Phil Martelli said. "One of the things I do get at times is envious. I wish I could teach offensive basketball the way I see some teams [run it] . . . It doesn't seem to be very complicated, but it's very efficient . . . There is a beauty to that style of play."
Tim Clifford, Holy Cross' all-time leading shot blocker, blocked Rob Ferguson's midrange jumper on the Hawks' opening possession. The Hawks got the rebound. Ahmad Nivins missed a baseline jumper, his only field-goal attempt of the half. The Hawks' next six possessions against the confounding Cross zone resulted in turnovers.
Darrin Govens got them on the board with two free throws. With 5:01 showing on the clock, Tasheed Carr hit a three for the Hawks' first field goal. HC's offense was all floor spacing and ball and player movement. On one amazing possession, everybody on the team touched it. The ball went inside, outside, across and finally into the deep corner for a wide-open trey that Adam May splashed to make it 18-2.
The wonder is the Hawks trailed only 34-21 at the break. They could not catch, pass or shoot. If somebody had been keeping time-of-possession stats, Holy Cross would have been dominating. It seemed like the Crusaders had the ball forever.
The last play of the half summed it up. Holy Cross lost the ball in the backcourt, got it right back and the Crusaders ended up with a 2-on-0 that Alex Vander Baan converted at the buzzer. The Hawks stayed alive because they went to the foul line, making 12 freebies in 20 minutes. But they did not make a single two-point shot and attempted just two shots in the lane.
"I just told the players that clearly falls on my shoulders," Martelli said. "If our best player [Nivins] is getting three shots because teams are throwing their hands in the air and playing what is a very good matchup zone, then I have not taught well enough in terms of positioning . . . Defensively, I wasn't strong enough in my messages. I thought because of the system that Holy Cross would play . . . we would be challenged defensively. I did not deliver that message clear enough or maybe emphatically enough."
Holy Cross (7-1) had been holding teams to 38.2 percent shooting and 53.7 points per game. So you knew its defense was good. This was better than good. This was suffocating.
"We have great ball pressure, a big guy in the middle who takes up a lot of space and we change a lot," Holy Cross coach Ralph Willard said. "We're trying to keep teams off-balance."
If the mark of a really good coach is getting the very best of your players' abilities, Willard hits the mark.
"We try to make you think on offense and work really hard on defense," Willard said. "We don't have great athletes."
They do have really good basketball players.
St. Joe's (4-3) solved the Holy Cross defense in the second half. The Hawks never solved the Crusaders' offense.
With all that, St. Joe's still had a chance late. Down 66-61 with just under 2 minutes left, St. Joe's, after making 15 of its first 25 second-half shots, missed five in a row, four on one excruciating possession. Pat Calathes, who had all 19 of his points in the second half, fouled out at the end of that frustrating flurry. He was done and so was his team.
"We just came and played like a bunch of girls," Calathes said. "We were outmuscled, got bullied by a bunch of guys smaller than us, a bunch of guys who we should have pounded in the ground."
Calathes figured his team should have won by 20, but he was probably being hard on himself and his team. Holy Cross does what it does as well as anybody. The Crusaders had an amazing 22 assists on their 25 field goals. And big man Clifford (16 points) is a highly skilled load, a lethal combination.
Carr (17 points) kept the Hawks alive in the first half. But, on a night when Nivins and Ferguson combined for just 12 points, it was always going to be hard.
"We never really could find a rhythm on offense," Carr said.
And when they finally did, they could not stop Holy Cross.
"It just took too long to figure out," Carr said. "At the same time, our defense [stunk]."