Saint Joseph's guard Shavar Newkirk dribbles against Toledo at Hagan Arena.
(Saint Joseph's athletics)
There’s some kind of mystical fascination when it comes to the number three. The number three is featured in adages like ‘third time’s the charm’ and in fairy tales where characters have three wishes. The number three has even found itself into commercial America in the form of the iconic trios: the Three Musketeers, the Three Stooges and DC comics’ three greatest super heroes, Superman, Batman and Superwoman.
Last Saturday’s battle between two epochal Philadelphia college basketball teams--the Saint Joseph’s Hawks and the Villanova Wildcats--was all about essential pieces of the game that had to do with the number 3: ‘Nova’s press and the 3-pointer.
For much of the game, Villanova ran a 1-2-2 press late in the first half that completely dismantled St. Joe’s offense. The top three guys of the press were responsible for aggressively trapping, which ultimately tired out the St. Joe’s starters, especially Hawks’ star guard Shavar Newkirk.
Newkirk shot just 37% from the field and just 33% from 3-point range. Of the six 3’s he took in the first half, three bounced off the front of the rim. A large reason why he struggled from deep was due to the pressure put on Newkirk, offensively and defensively, causing him to lose energy.
‘Nova’s press forced Newkirk to bring the ball up the court in an average of 6.35 seconds when the press was on. This would cause the guard to constantly scramble just to advance the ball up the floor. Newkirk is also just 6-foot and needs to use his legs twice as much as his taller counterparts to be able to shoot over a defender.
Although the Hawks went zone for much of the beginning portion of the game, covering ‘Nova’s star guard Jalen Brunson up top (who would go on to drop 11 points and four assists in the half) was just as draining for St. Joe’s star.
After Hawks’ forward James Demery sunk an and-1 after being fouled by fellow forward Eric Paschall, the Wildcats went on a rampage. In under two-and-a-half minutes, ‘Nova would drop four 3-pointers in a row, effectively silencing the once roaring student section. At the end of the half, Nova was up 41-27 and showed no sign of slowing down.
St. Joe’s, on the other hand, had just one player who scored in double digits in the first half. Instead, they had three guys who played double digit minutes, but scored 0 points.
In the second half, the Hawks tried to remedy Brunson’s play by covering him with different defenders, including Chris Clover and James Demery. But this didn’t work so well and Hawks’ head coach Phil Martelli alternated the defense so that as soon as Brunson drove into the lane, the bigs would converge like hungry sharks to try and stop Brunson. However, Villanova forward Mikal Bridges knew this wouldn’t work.
“Jalen can really score the ball so when he’s looking to score, everybody’s looking at him,” Bridges explained. “And [Brunson] is a really good point guard so he finds us. As soon as he feels that pressure, with the defense stepping up or if [the defense] is ball watching him, he just finds us for wide open 3’s.”
Brunson would contribute with assists and shots as he led the Wildcats to a school record of ten 3’s in one half. However, Brunson wasn’t the only part of ‘Nova’s sudden surge of scoring.
In the second half, Bridges, Collin Gillespie, and Phil Booth would all score three 3-point baskets and combine for four assists and five rebounds in the half.
St. Joes’ performance would slowly deteriorate as the game went on. Newkirk scored just two more points in 12 minutes of second half play. Demery also added just 4 points and 1 rebound, after scoring 10 points and grabbing 4 rebounds in the first half. However, two players for Saint Joe’s would improve in the second half.
Philadelphia native Chris Clover, scored just four points, and two rebounds in the first half but found his second wind and competed at a much higher level. Clover doubled his first half points (finishing with 12 on the night), collected two more boards, and dished out an assist to fellow Pennsylvania native, Taylor Funk.
Finally, it was freshman forward Taylor Funk, who wears number 33, who hit three 3’s to end the night. He tallied an admiral 13 points, 2 assists, and 3 boards.
Despite the fact that Villanova Wildcats’ head coach Jay Wright won the game by over 40 points, the decorated head coach sung nothing but praises of his opponent.
“When [the Hawks] get their guys back” Wright said, touching on the injuries to sophomore Charlie Brown and junior Lamarr Kimble, “and they have these young guys for the next couple years, they’re gonna be good.”
While Villanova will travel to Creighton on Tuesday night, St. Joe’s can take this loss and figure out how to gain the upper hand in their next game against Temple, who is also a staple of the Philadelphia college basketball stratosphere. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll be able to steal a little from Villanova and utilize the number 3 in a win against Temple.
-(1) Villanova faces (5) West Virginia in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament