It probably has been a long time since anyone was thrilled with an NIT bid. The NCAA tournament is a national institution and anything less than a bid is a disappointment for a team.
But St. Joseph's problem in its gut-wrenching 63-61 loss to St. John's in an NIT opener Tuesday night before a surprisingly small crowd of 3,148 at Hagan Arena wasn't about emotion, coach Phil Martelli insisted, it was about talent.
"I was very emphatic with my team about the excitement level," he said afterward. The Hawks were "playing a Big East team, playing at home, coming off a loss. And for the most part, I don't have an emotional question here. I have an ability question."
That gap was notable in the closing minutes when St. John's dominated, with its shot blockers intimidating the Hawks inside.
After two free throws by Ronald Roberts got the Hawks even, 61-61, with 5.7 seconds left, St. John's raced downcourt instead of taking a time out.
With a defender in his face, Sir'Dominic Pointer hit a fadeaway jumper as the buzzer sounded to end St. Joe's frustrating season.
JaKarr Sampson led the Red Storm with 16 points while Pointer added 15. Carl Jones, in his final game, paced the Hawks with 21. Langston Galloway had 16.
The winner in the first meeting between these two Catholic schools since 1980 will meet No. 1-seeded Virginia, which defeated Norfolk State, 67-56.
There was plenty of emotion afterward in St. Joe's silent locker room. Jones sat slumped against a wall, a towel draped over his head. He answered questions in whispers.
"We were up 8, 10, 12 in the second half," he said. "You can't blame the coaches. It's on the players."
The Hawks (18-14) were the better team early, leading the athletic but young Red Storm (17-15) by six at the break and by 12 two minutes into the second half.
"We shot 30 percent in the second half. They shot 45 percent," Martelli said. "I liked the quality of our shots, but I'm not sure we were as confident. Their shot blocking got into our heads a little bit and we didn't finish enough plays in and around the rim."
The Hawks made just 14 of their 41 shots from close range, thanks in part to the shot-blocking abilities of Pointer (three) and Chris Obekpa (three). And in the final minutes, they never looked comfortable.
"We were trying not to lose on some possessions late in the game," said Martelli, "instead of playing free and easy."