Saint Joseph's forward James Demery attempts to block former Oregon forward Dwayne Benjamin's shot.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images North America
In the days leading up to the Saint Joseph’s Hawks game against the Maine Black Bears, there had been a constant point of emphasis in the locker room. The team had not won a game in December.
Although they had played only two games during the span, the Hawks were disappointed. The two losses had come at the hands of Big 5 rivals Villanova and Temple. Even though it was finals season for the college students, their record in December was unacceptable.
“It’s the whole idea of ‘I want to be a kid, I just want to go home’ but the fact that we hadn’t won this month, I was on them about that,” head coach Phil Martelli said of the players and finals.
Coming into the month of December however, St. Joe’s had won two straight games over Sacramento State and Bucknell. They were confident and playing well heading into the week stretch that would pit them against two of their biggest rivals and two of the best teams they would play all season: Villanova and Temple. But in both games, defense would be their kryptonite.
Against Villanova, the Hawks kept it close early, matching the Wildcats offensively, but could not sustain the pace. They would go on to give up 94 points and a school record 19 3-pointers. St. Joe’s threw many different looks at the number 4 ranked Wildcats, including a 2-3 zone, but could not slow them down.
In their matchup versus Temple, St. Joe’s took the game down to the wire, but once again, they were let down by their defense. Although they would lose by only 3 points, the Owls shot 44% from the field and 50% from 3 for a total of 40 points in the first half. St. Joe’s had dug themselves a hole. In the second half, the team would buckle down, as Temple would shoot just 39% from the field and 29% from 3. They also held Temple star Shizz Alston to 5 points (after 15 in the first half) and 2 of 7 shooting from the field.
The hope was that the same second half intensity against Temple would translate into their Sunday evening battle against Maine. However, after a disappointing practice on Friday, they struggled defensively once again.
“Friday was a brutal, brutal, brutal practice,” Martelli said.
So, fifteen minutes into the game against Maine, the Hawks were losing 25-21. Redshirt sophomore Isaiah White had notched 14 points, including four 3’s for the Black Bears at the time. Coach Martelli tossed multiple looks at White, hoping to slow him down. While they started with junior Chris Clover on the the Black Bear’s guard, it wasn’t long before Demery, their star defender, would switch on to White. White would not score again the rest of the first half.
“Just to speed him up,” Demery said of his goal when covering White. “Get inside his space, make him feel uncomfortable. That’s like a major key for a defender to do for a person who can actually score the ball. Just make him rush his shot.”
As a matter of fact, Maine would only score two points the rest of the half and St. Joe’s would take a 30-27 lead heading into halftime after trailing for most of the first half.
“We just went harder on the ball. We became more aggressive on the ball,” Martelli said. “I would say that was the biggest deal and at some point you get to your number. They were seven for their first eleven I think from three or whatever that was. That’s not their game.”
The Hawks also made a concerted effort not to foul. Coming into the game, opponents averaged 19 free throw attempts per game.
“Usually we just play a no fouling defense,” Martelli said. “That’s what we're trying to do and we did it again, two free throws.”
In the second half, they would hold the Black Bears to just 32 points, going on to win 72-59. It was the second lowest amount of points they allowed all season.
“This improves our confidence a lot,” Demery added following Sunday’s game. “I can tell in the guys. We needed that but now it’s time to move on to the next game and continue to grow. And hopefully everybody is picked up from this win and we continue to win.”
The only other team that the Hawks held below 60 points this season was Princeton, whom they beat in November. However, defense has been a clear indicator in the Hawks’ success. In their five wins, they’ve allowed an average of 67 points per game, a noticeable difference from the 85 points per game they’ve allowed in losses. In addition, defending the 3-ball, as shown by Maine’s Isaiah White, has been a major struggle for the team. Opposing offenses are shooting 37% from 3, which ranks the Hawks 273rd in the NCAA. Despite the statistics, Demery sees improvement in the team, especially after a suffocating second half defensive performance against Maine where the Black Bears shot 25%.
“I feel like we're making good progress,” Demery said. “Everybody’s starting to connect, starting to know where we're supposed to be on the help side. So that’s very important..A lot of teams can beat us from the three...We have to contest those and make them feel uncomfortable.”
If the Hawks want to make a run in A-10 play, they’ll have to focus in on their defense. That will start with senior James Demery. Night in and night out, Demery is tasked with covering the opposing team’s best player. Whether that is a guard or forward, Demery’s versatility has been a major asset for the St. Joe’s defense. But it also extends past Demery. Senior Shavar Newkirk has struggled defensively this season, tallying the lowest defensive box plus-minus (-3.1) of any players registering regular minutes. If Newkirk can showcase his ability to cover the opposing team’s best guard, that will be important down the stretch. As a result, Demery could cover the opposing team’s best forward, which would have everyone covering someone their own size. This would limit the mismatches for Martelli’s defense.
Sophomore Nick Robinson is another player who will be a major key on the defensive end. Robinson comes off the bench, but often comes in for Demery. He is usually tasked with covering one of the opposing team’s best perimeter players. Robinson’s size and length present immense potential. If he can be a go-to defender off the bench, that will be key in making sure that the team keeps their defensive focus throughout the entire game.
Heading forward, on Wednesday, St. Joe’s will attend the “Basketball Hall of Fame Holiday Showcase” to square off with the 9-2 St. John’s Red Storm. The New York City school is led by five players who average double digit points per game. If St. Joe’s wants to secure their potentially best win all season, they’ll need to lock down on defense from the first half to the second half, just as they did in the final 25 minutes against Maine.
-Saint Joesph's loses to #25 Rhode Island in the Semifinal of the A-10 tournament