Saint Joseph's forward Pierfrancesco Oliva dribbles up the court against St. Bonaventure at Hagan Arena..
(Photo credit: Saint Joseph's Athletics)
Avi Cantor and William Derry
Staff Writer and Editor
For a majority of the first half in their game on January 6th, St. Bonaventure had been chipping away at Saint Joseph’s lead.
With seven minutes left in the half, St. Joe’s pulled ahead by eight points, the largest lead of the game so far. They finally seemed in control, comfortably winning against one of the top teams in the A-10.
It wouldn’t last for long though as the Bonnies managed to continue shaving away at the Hawks’ lead.
St. Bonnies’ forward LaDarian Griffin threw down a court-quaking dunk to cut the Hawks’ lead to six. After a defensive stand, Philadelphia native Izaiah Brockington hit a jumper, seemingly changing the momentum of the game.
Fellow guard Matt Mobley followed Brockington’s bucket with a steal and a layup of his own. The momentum hadn’t merely changed. Mobley’s shot managed to stab the Hawks’ dying lead, leaving them barely leading by two points.
Luckily for the Hawks, forward Pierfrancesco “Checco” Oliva wasn’t keen on the idea of losing a lead.
When Bonnies’ forward Josh Ayeni received the ball, hugging the sideline, Oliva trapped him and forced him to squirm around, yearning to get the ball out of his hands. Ayeni’s struggle created a turnover on a traveling violation, ending the Bonnies’ run of consecutive scores.
After a media timeout, Oliva promptly fed forward James Demery for a wide open bucket. Seconds later, Oliva boxed out Bonnies’ forward Courtney Stockard, allowing guard Shavar Newkirk to pick up the rebound, charge up the court, and draw a foul that would lead to two points.
Oliva’s game against St. Bonaventure was indicative of his play for much of the season. He contributed when they needed it most, doing the dirty work, and as a result, Oliva ended the night just one point, two rebounds and two assists shy of a triple-double. All season he has attacked the boards, grabbing a rebound from one play to the next and immediately serving as a threat on both sides of the ball. He has become a type of secret weapon for head coach Phil Martelli, even if his stats don’t always show it, specifically with his ability to handle and pass the basketball with ease.
When Oliva grabs a board on the defensive end, he doesn’t need to outlet. He can instantly dribble the ball up the court and start a fastbreak play for the Hawks, which allows SJU to get out in transition faster and score more points. Oliva can also create for teammates from the perimeter by beating his man off the dribble and dishing it out to an open teammate when their defender slides over to help. On offense, Oliva is a constant mismatch.
Not only does Oliva contribute on the offensive end but he also provides the Hawks with a presence on defense. The 6-foot-8 big can guard the ‘4’ and the ‘5’, with his lateral quickness on the perimeter and length in the post. As a result, he has recorded a block in 15 of the team’s games while leading the Hawks in defensive box plus/minus at 4.1 and is third on the team in overall box plus/minus at 2.3.
Three days before Saint Joseph’s game against the Bonnies on January 6th, Oliva scored 15 points, grabbed 7 rebounds, dished out 3 assists, and added a steal and a block in an overtime victory against VCU. However, Martelli considered relieving Oliva of his starting duties prior to the VCU game due to his subpar play.
“He’s a veteran player, he played in an NCAA [tournament] game, so he should be playing [well] and he hadn’t been,” Martelli said following the St .Bonaventure game.
Martelli instead decided to keep the former All-State Third Team player in the starting five in large part because of his skillset and how it would help defeat VCU’s press and man-to-man defense.
That versatility that Martelli mentioned has been evident in Oliva’s play since the Hawks beat VCU. Oliva has found ways to impact the game despite not being a consistent scorer this season. For example, when the Hawks beat Dayton on January 17th, Oliva did not record a single point but he led Saint’s Joseph’s in rebounding with 15 boards (all defensive), helping them outrebound the Flyers 43-32. Now, the redshirt sophomore, despite only weighing 210 pounds, leads the A-10 in defensive rebounding percentage at 23.7.
Oliva followed up that performance on January 20th with a season-high 22-point effort in Saint Joseph’s win against Fordham. Although Oliva has not shot the ball well this season, he had it going against Fordham shooting 9-17 from the field for 22 points and adding 8 boards, 2 assists, 1 block, and 2 steals.
While Oliva had his best scoring outing of the season against the Rams, the next 5 games he would make his mark in the paint, recording 26 rebounds and on the perimeter, tallying 13 assists.
In conference play Oliva has not shot the ball too consistently, but his rebounding has made up for it. Oliva has recorded 7 or more rebounds in all of Saint Joseph’s conference wins this season as he is averaging 6.3 boards in A-10 play. Even more, Oliva is averaging 3 assists, 1 block and 1.2 steals in conference play.
As spontaneous as it is to see both a statistically and non-statistically impressive steak of performances from Oliva, coach Martelli credits his overall success to an impressively high basketball IQ.
“Of the guys on our team with IQ’s, he has the highest IQ so he saw some plays that other players don’t see,” said coach Martelli.
Oliva’s high basketball IQ may be his greatest strength and he has relied on it when he’s been unable to get things going this season. At the times when Oliva has struggled to score, his high basketball IQ has kept him on the floor. He takes pressure of Newkirk and often jumpstarts the offensive himself, putting a lot of stress on the defense. With Lamarr Kimble out for the season, much of his ball handling responsibility has fallen upon Oliva and he has not disappointed. While the nightly box scores may not always show the contribution that Oliva makes for Saint Joseph's, the forward’s versatility on offense and defense has been one of the team’s most effective aspects.
-Saint Joesph's loses to #25 Rhode Island in the Semifinal of the A-10 tournament