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St. Joe’s handles Villanova, and the craziness

One big question of the night on Hawk Hill wasn't how Villanova would handle the craziness here - it was more how the Hawks would handle it.

One big question of the night on Hawk Hill wasn't how Villanova would handle the craziness here - it was more how the Hawks would handle it.

This was new to all the Hawks, not just because it was the first Villanova-St. Joseph's game at Hagan Arena, but also because of the revival of meaning to the game beyond the rivalry.

And how did the Hawks handle it? Short answer: St. Joseph's walk-ons were on the court at the end finishing things off. The Hawks did not merely take full advantage of atmospherics in the 74-58 victory. They are the better team right now, with better players at all positions, dictating play.

"They're playing with confidence - they're throwing up alley-oops to their guys and we're missing layups," said Villanova coach Jay Wright. "But we'll get there."

As December local games go, this wasn't trivial stuff. Villanova's confidence could have used the booster shot of a road win, but the early evidence mounted that they aren't going to magically turn into an NCAA team, especially when they only make 18.5 percent of their three-pointers. The Wildcats hadn't lost to both Temple and St. Joe's in the same season since 1987-88.

St. Joseph's had a chance to prove its start was for real, to add another brick to its revival. Bigger tests will come when it faces this atmosphere on the road, but it was historic that the game was played at St. Joseph's. Phil Martelli knew what people would say about moving this one to Hagan Arena from the Palestra for the first time.

"I was out there," Martelli said a few days before the game. "I was the one who said Philadelphia games belong at the Palestra. Now we're changing it. Well [people would say], 'You didn't have a say in it. You're desperate.' I knew all that was going to come. I said when I was asked, 'At this point in time, it's the right thing for this program.' "

After two 11-win seasons, the host school understood it needed to breathe new life into the building, and that in order to add value to the season-ticket package, including the 'Nova game at home was the best option. Especially since St. Joe's has been adding a surcharge, as much as $350 a seat per year, in addition to the per-game cost.

And if the 'Nova game wasn't part of the package, the Drexel game probably wouldn't have been sold out. And if the Creighton crowd hadn't been a full house, maybe the Hawks don't win that one. Getting the students back in force also was key, Martelli said.

You have to go pretty far back, to Jameer Nelson's last game at the Fieldhouse in 2004, when St. Joe's was trying to finish off a perfect regular season against St. Bonaventure, to remember when the ticket was this tough. A friend of Martelli's had sent him four Phillies World Series Game 6 tickets to trade - "in November," Martelli said. The coach sent back four tickets to the Hawks' exhibition game with the University of Scranton.

On Friday, my friend Kane e-mailed, saying he would be at Saturday's game but his son, a St. Joe's grad, was still trying to figure out how to get in. He was thinking about reading a newspaper in a bathroom stall for five hours, or counterfeiting a press pass, or working out [or hanging out] in another part of the athletic complex.

But St. Joe's officials were on to the bathroom ploy. Martelli said he used to do that one himself at the Palestra, going to wrestling matches in the afternoon, then hiding out in the toilet stalls.

The fake press pass would be tough, too. St. Joe's officials said real season passes wouldn't even be enough for this game, that media and staff had to get a sticker put on them to get in.

"He's negotiating with a student," Kane told me Saturday morning. The price online wasn't too agreeable: $475 for two tickets. He offered $125 for a ticket and got laughed off the message board.

An hour before the game, Kane's son got a phone call. A friend of a friend knew somebody in the St. Joe's athletic department and came through with a standing-room ticket. When he got there, there was a seat for him, a good one, in the third row behind a basket across from the students, just down from Evan Turner of the Sixers.

Before anyone was let in, there was a sweep of the building, and also a police dog went through since there had been a couple of bomb scares in past years for this game.

Martelli said there were students everywhere he looked outside waiting to be let in.

"I never saw anything like that," Martelli said. "It was like the Beatles or something, or whoever is hot now. I don't even know who is hot."

Outside of his own little ball club, he meant.