Fran McCaffery is no stranger to the Palestra, having played his college basketball at Penn, and knows that the old building often has seen the impossible comeback in more than eight decades of existence.
McCaffery had a front-row seat for the latest one last night when his Siena Saints roared back from an 18-point second-half deficit against St. Joseph's and pulled out a 75-74 victory on two free throws by sophomore forward Ryan Rossiter with 2.4 seconds remaining.
The Hawks (5-6) led by 61-43 with 15 minutes, 6 seconds to play before seeing their offense rendered ineffective by the Saints' clawing press. St. Joe's went more than nine minutes without a field goal, missing six shots and committing nine turnovers during its drought.
The Saints (7-4) got the lead back with just over four minutes to play, then the game seesawed down the stretch as the 6,128 folks in attendance spent little time in their seats.
"It's much better being on the floor" than coaching, said McCaffery, who graduated from Penn in 1982. "I know what this feeling is like. It seems like every time we played a Big Five game, it was like this. Every time we played Princeton, it was like this. I'm glad our guys enjoyed this experience."
Hawks coach Phil Martelli was as dismayed as McCaffery was happy.
St. Joe's guard Darren Govens committed seven of his team's 19 turnovers. Center Ahmad Nivins, who came into the game averaging 11.5 rebounds, managed just two.
"The numbers always speak," Martelli said. "We shot 6 of 10 from the foul line. We have a starting guard with seven turnovers. We have our best player with two rebounds. It's a game of numbers. All the warts that we have, no depth. . . . We didn't have it."
The Saints turned it up several notches after the Hawks had threatened to blow their guests back to upstate New York with a 17-4 run to start the second half.
The Saints launched their comeback with a 9-0 run. After the Hawks converted four free throws, Siena used a spurt of 10 straight points to close to 65-62 with less than 61/2 minutes remaining. Clarence Jackson, a sophomore from Cherokee High, knocked down a long jumper during that stretch for three of his career-high 28 points off the bench.
The Saints took the lead, 71-70, on a three-pointer by Edwin Ubiles with 4 minutes, 4 seconds left.
Idris Hilliard, who finished with a career-high 20 points, gave St. Joe's its last lead, 74-73, with 1:27 to play. The Hawks had a chance to extend their advantage when Tasheed Carr went to the line for a 1-and-1 with 9.5 seconds remaining, but he missed the front end. That set the stage for Rossiter's winning free throws.
"It was all the flaws that we have," Martelli said. "If you walk to the foul line with nine seconds left, you've got to knock them down."