TOWSON, Md. - Saint Joseph's must be the only program in the country that would play in Maui against the big boys late in November and at Lehigh and Towson on consecutive Tuesdays in early December.
The Hawks don't do "guarantee" games, because they don't have that kind of budget. They play home and home against whatever teams will play them.
Towson is a midlevel Colonial Athletic Associaton team trying to find its place. Back in the day, the Tigers were a Division II power that attracted giant crowds to the Towson Center, just north of the Baltimore city line. Those crowds are long gone, but hoops are hoops.
And, on this night, the Hawks played some hoops. It took some time, but, once St. Joe's established itself, it was just a question of how many.
St. Joe's won it, 85-64. The Hawks were methodical in the first half, wide open in the second, when their defense triggered one fastbreak after another. Towson coach Pat Kennedy, coaching his 856th game, could not call timeouts fast enough.
The Hawks (4-4) were shooting 70 percent midway through the first half, but found themselves tied, 19-19. Why? Three consecutive turnovers against a 1-3-1 halfcourt trap, two leading to runouts.
Once they began to get the ball past the first line of defense and to the open wings, the three-point shooters, who hadn't made much of anything since the Indiana game in Maui on Nov. 25, began to get open looks. Darrin Govens knocked out two and, all of a sudden, Ahmad Nivins began to come wide open near the rim.
"When we can make some perimeter shots, it stretches the defense," St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli said. "Then, Ahmad Nivins . . . It's hard pressed for me to really think in the Atlantic 10, guys like David West and [Marcus] Camby. I'm not saying he's of that level; those guys were first-team All-Americans. That's the kind of performance we're getting in the frontcourt."
When Nivins got the ball in close, the only times he did not score baskets was when he got fouled. And he missed almost nothing from the foul line.
That Towson played several varieties of zones was a good thing for the Hawks, who have had trouble with man pressure on the perimeter early in the season. The pressure, of course, is a bit different when it comes from Texas and Alabama, rather than Towson and Bucknell.
There is no defense Kennedy won't try or hasn't tried. Coaching, however, is only worth so much. This is a game of personnel. Towson (4-5) has some solid players, but nobody like Nivins. Few do.
Going into the game, Nivins was eighth nationally in field-goal percentage and rebounding. He forces nothing, and still has that great footwork he had when he stepped on campus in 2005.
Towson had nothing for him. Nivins finished with 25 points and nine rebounds, shooting 9-for-12 from the field and 7-for-8 from the foul line.
Govens, however, is the key to the team. He must make long shots for this team to have a chance to get anywhere. After making 7-for-9 from the arc against Indiana's soft defenses, he proceeded to miss 16 of his next 18 treys.
"I feel like a lot of them still didn't go in," Govens said. "I'm totally aware I need to make shots."
Govens finished with 22 points against the Tigers. He had 18 points with 12 minutes left, knocking in four treys. He was so hot, Kennedy tried a box-and-one on him. So other Hawks began to score.
"We just played," said Tasheed Carr, who had 11 points and eight rebounds. "We talked about it as a team . . . We've got athletes. We've got to push the ball and make things happen."
St. Joe's topped out at 60 percent shooting before cooling to 51.7 percent for the game. The Hawks had been shooting 42.9 percent on the season, 37.7 percent without Nivins.
St. Joe's crushed Towson on the glass, 40-22. Point guard Garrett Williamson nearly had a triple-double with eight points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds.
"We are starting to trust each other," Williamson said. "Our stops led to good offense in the second half."
St. Joe's outscored Towson in the lane, 40-16. The Hawks were 11-for-12 in the lane in the first half and nearly that good in the second.
Lane points will be much harder tomorrow at Villanova. Every point will be harder. But this was a step for a team that has been trying to find its way through the early season. *