WINS OVER Villanova and No. 19 Creighton have built Saint Joseph's mettle. Games like last night's will test it.
Coppin State came into Hagan Arena carrying a deceptive 4-6 record. The Eagles are small, quick, shoot a lot of threes and are dangerous when they are making them. It took 40 minutes, but St. Joe's eventually swept them away, 81-72.
As far as the grade for intestinal fortitude, give the Hawks a C.
The setup for last night's game was similar to the loss at American University the first week of December. St. Joe's was coming off wins against Penn State and Drexel and laid an egg at American.
Last night, the Hawks were riding a three-game win streak that included the victories over Villanova and Creighton, and played well enough to win. Coach Phil Martelli is now tied for the school record with 309 victories at St. Joe's.
"[Coppin State] played very good teams," Hawks forward Halil Kanacevic said. "Coach said it was similar to when we played American University. It was kind of like a trap game. We were coming off a couple big games, got a couple big wins. [Last night], the crowd was nowhere near what it was like for the Villanova game. You see a team like Coppin State. They're record doesn't tell what kind of team they were."
Some of Coppin's other losses were to Oklahoma (8-1), Connecticut (9-1), Purdue (10-3), Illinois (11-1) and Charlotte (7-2). The Eagles had a 13-point first-half lead on Connecticut and hung tough with the Illini.
C.J. Aiken had a career-high 20 points and led four Hawks scorers in double figures. But Kanacevic, who had only seven points, was the key to the victory as St. Joe's improved to 9-3.
"I actually think he was the best player," Martelli said. "He does the small things defensively. The other guys are just young and not as confident in their abilities. He's willing to be wrong defensively, and that's OK. He's a basketball player. He really is."
Kanacevic made all three of his field-goal attempts, including a clutch three-pointer with a little less than 2 minutes to go. He also mixed in eight rebounds and four blocked shots, and many of his game-high eight assists came on spectacular lob plays to Aiken. The two are beginning to develop a Jagr/Giroux-like relationship where they talk on the court without saying a word.
"You build chemistry during a season," said Kanacevic, a transfer from Hofstra. "Once everybody starts meshing, you can get tendencies of how guys move. It's like hockey. You might not make the [primary] pass for a dunk, but you help get the assist. That's how you know a team is getting chemistry when they start making those kind of plays."
Midway through the second half, the Eagles were a ridiculous 13-for-22 on three-points (59.1 percent). At the same point in the game, they were 3-for-25 on two-point attempts. They played the Hawks even in the second half, 44-44.
"We're not leaving here ecstatic about our defense, because we had a 40-point [defensive] half, and that can't be," Martelli grumbled. "That doesn't bode well for the Atlantic 10."
St. Joe's is 6-0 at home, 3-3 away from Hagan Arena. The Hawks host Morgan State Wednesday night in what will be their fifth consecutive home game before traveling to Harvard for a New Year's Eve game.
"I'm concerned about the road. We proved we can win in this building. Can we win on the road?" Martelli said. "We're kind of an average team right now. We have a nice record. It will be a nice Christmas. But if we really want to go forward and be part of anything postseason, we have to win on the road."
Martelli (309-212 overall) is tied with Bill Ferguson (1928-53) for the record, but was reluctant to talk about the significance of the accomplishment.
"Just to have the honor to coach here . . . that's enough for me," he said. "The numbers are because you have good players and people around you who are very supportive. I didn't really think of it. I didn't think of it."
Kanacevic said the players have talked about it and are eager to get Martelli the record.