Saint Joseph's could not have played much better for the first 25 minutes last night at the Palestra. Siena could not have played much better for the final 15 minutes.
As an 18-point second-half Hawks' lead began to melt, it was simply a question of what was going to happen first - the end of the game or that lead disappearing completely.
The answer was the lead. What looked like a sure win for the Hawks became the kind of numbing loss that won't wash away overnight.
Really, St. Joe's up 18 at the Palestra with 15 minutes to go. When was the last time that wasn't enough?
The answer now is Dec. 28, 2008. Siena's Ryan Rossiter swished two free throws with 2.4 seconds left to give his team a 75-74 win.
Depending on your point of view, St. Joe's (5-6) lost it or Siena (7-4) won it.
"The numbers always speak," said an analytical St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli. "When we're in some kind of game with 70 points, we're in trouble."
Once by himself, Martelli was likely much less analytical.
But if the coach whose team gave up the lead is very unhappy, the coach whose team overcame that lead has to be thrilled. And Siena's Fran McCaffery (La Salle High, Penn) was every bit of that.
"I thought defensively in the second half, we couldn't play much better than that," McCaffery said. "We were able to get them a little sideways with our pressure."
The star of the show for Siena was sophomore guard Clarence Jackson from Cherokee High in Marlton, N.J. After averaging 3.7 points last season and 5.7 points in the first 10 games this season, he had 16 points by halftime on the way to 28.
"I just kept attacking them," Jackson said.
The Saints were in attack mode from the tip. They do not slow down, which means either you run with them or get run over. The Hawks chose to run with them. They also got great ball movement, which led to so many wide-open shots, at the rim and from the arc, that they were shooting 63.3 percent at the half.
St. Joe's made its first six shots of the second half, got the lead out to 61-43 while topping out from the field at 25-for-36 (69.6 percent). That could not keep it up and didn't, with the Hawks going 9 minutes without a single basket.
"We got ahead of ourselves," Martelli said, "and just the look of panic . . . "
Siena went from wild to frenzied, trapping anywhere and everywhere. The Hawks could not handle it and started to get very loose with the ball, finishing with 19 turnovers.
"We folded as a team," the Hawks' Tasheed Carr said.
Martelli was right about many of the numbers, but some did lie. The Hawks shot 58.5 percent for the game. That will win on most nights. This was not most nights.
"It's a bad feeling," said St. Joe's Idris Hilliard, who did his part with 20 points, nine rebounds and five assists. "We had it."
Ahmad Nivins (15 points) had just one miss all game. It was a three at the end of the shot clock with 16 seconds left and the Hawks leading 74-73. The Hawks stole it right back and Carr was staring at a one-and-one with 9.5 seconds left. It was long.
"That's on me," Carr said. "I want opportunities like that. The only thing I can do is next time try to make it better."
Siena seized the opening, rushing the ball down court, a great pass sending Rossiter in front of the rim where Darrin Govens fouled him. He did not miss.
Hilliard threw a nice pass to Garrett Williamson at halfcourt. His 40-foot runner glanced off the front of the rim at the buzzer. Only the damage assessment remained. *