NOBODY IN the city other than Villanova's Josh Hart has played better in the season's first month than Saint Joseph's junior point guard Shavar Newkirk. With his team playing from behind just about the entire game at Drexel Sunday evening, it was Newkirk who scored the Hawks' last 11 points.
And it was Newkirk, on a must-score possession as the clock wound toward 10 seconds left in the game, who split the Drexel zone from the right wing, took the ball into the lane, absorbed a hit, made a short shot and stood at the free throw line with 10.7 seconds left, a made free throw away from giving the Hawks a one-point lead.
His free throw was a bit off, hitting the back rim, but it bounced straight into the air and right back into the basket.
"Shooter's touch," Newkirk said after teammates Javon Baumann and Nick Robinson blocked two Drexel shots in the final seconds and St. Joe's won 72-71 in a game it led for just 2 1/2 minutes overall, including those final 10 seconds.
Newkirk finished with 27 points and all of them were necessary, especially the last three.
"They were playing Charlie (Brown) for the three ball," he said. "That's what allowed me to get to the lane easy."
Newkirk already had games of 28, 23, 22, 21 and 20 points. His scoring average has gone from 8.0 points last season to 21.1 through eight games.
Drexel's Rodney Williams (29 points, 10 rebounds) dominated the basket area and was as good for his team as Newkirk was for his.
"Rodney Williams was just terrific," St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli said.
If results were decided by early effort, Drexel would have been rewarded with a win. The Dragons, under first-year coach Zach Spiker, flew out of the gate, streaking to a 17-6 lead in the game's first 4 1/2 minutes. The Hawks were having trouble keeping up as the ball flew around the halfcourt, usually to a wide-open shooter who was not missing.
Then, the whistles began to sound, 49 personals and two technicals, one on Martelli in the first half after he suggested to referee Steve McJunkins that he was "in over his head" and one on Drexel's Sammy Mojica in the second half who was protesting his third foul, which begat his fourth because a technical on a player is also a personal.
Drexel, already playing without Miles Overton (sprained ankle), has little depth under the best of circumstances so Spiker stayed with Mojica until he fouled out with 8 minutes left.
"It was good to start the game that way," Spiker said. "As the game wore on, so did our depth."
Lamarr Kimble had 16 for the Hawks (4-4). Brendan Casper was a two-way player off the bench for St. Joe's, keeping them around early with his scoring on the way to 10 points and drawing charges every few possessions it seemed. Martelli pointed to seniors Casper and Baumann as difference-makers.
And there was Newkirk.
"He saw what was needed and did what he had to do," Martelli said.
Martelli was less happy with some of his younger players.
"Some of our young guys are still back at Hagen (Arena), like they didn't even make the trip" he said. "And so that's not going to be nearly good enough facing what we have to face . . . There not as fervent about every play and that came down to every play."
Dragons freshman point guard Kurk Lee had 16 points, six assists and just one turnover. He has been a revelation. So really has Drexel. Still, losing a game where you lead for so long is never easy, which was why Williams looked so distraught at the buzzer and Spiker lingered on the court, perhaps hoping the result would change.
"As I told our guys in the locker room, I don't think anyone should leave this locker room feeling good that we played St. Joe's a little bit close because we're shorthanded," Spiker said.
The effort was more than good enough, but the Hawks' defense held the Dragons without a point in the final two minutes.
"This feeling sucks, but we'll be a better team in March because of this game," Spiker said.
The Dragons (4-5) have been more competitive early than anybody had a right to expect.
"We want to stay in attack mode," Spiker said. "Our program's going to be successful because we don't ever get on our heels . . . We stay in the center of the ring, we take a couple of punches, we're also going to deliver punches. They had the final punch tonight."