FAVORITES EMBRACE VICTORY
There is a simple bottom line to the Saint Joseph's season. The Hawks have many serviceable parts, but their dreams of getting to the Final Four rest largely on the play of Jameer Nelson.
Judging by the show the All-American guard put on the last two games, the tiny Philadelphia school just might get there.
Nelson had a season-high 33 points in Thursday's destruction of Liberty. Saturday night, with his team's storybook year and his wondrous career hanging in the balance, he made virtually every play in crunch time.
Nelson scored 10 of his team's final 15 points after Saint Joseph's had blown a 13-point first-half lead, and he propelled the Hawks to a thrilling 70-65 victory over Texas Tech in a second-round NCAA Tournament game in HSBC Arena.
The Hawks (29-1) advance to next weekend's East Rutherford (N.J.) regional semifinals against Wake Forest. It's the first trip to the Sweet 16 since 1997 for the region's No. 1 seed.
Coach Phil Martelli said that's why he'll relish this victory, not because it sends him on to play the alma mater of CBS analyst and head Hawks critic Billy Packer or because it came against a legendary coaching figure such as Texas Tech's Bob Knight.
"To go to the Sweet 16 I'd beat a team coached by Homer Simpson," Martelli cracked. "That didn't have any impact on going forward.
"But in another lifetime, when you sit and you reflect on games you remember and people you cross paths with, this will be something I remember."
Western New York basketball fans certainly will remember Nelson's show in the last nine minutes Saturday. The 5-foot-11 senior finished with a game-high 24 points, hitting four three-pointers and several spectacular running shots off the glass.
His finger roll with 8:38 left gave Saint Joseph's a 57-51 lead, and his three-pointer with 7:55 to play put the Hawks in front, 60-53. But things got tenuous as Tech (23-11) scored the next seven points to pull even at 60-60 with 5:09 left.
Saint Joseph's took the lead for good, 63-60, when Pat Carroll (14 points) drilled a three-pointer from the right of the key with 4:53 left.
Tech cut it to 63-62 before Nelson gave the Hawks the breathing room they needed, burying a three-pointer from the top of the key with 2:31 left and hitting two free throws with 1:15 to go for a 68-62 lead.
It was 68-65 when Nelson held the ball near midcourt on the Hawks' final possession with a difference of nine seconds between the shot clock and game clock.
Nelson eventually fed backcourt mate Delonte West, whose pass to center Dwayne Jones produced a clinching layup with 13.4 seconds left.
"I'm the leader and the captain, and the team looks to me to take all the big shots and make the big plays," said Nelson, who did it all while playing through stiffness in his back. "It got to the point where the game got tight, and my team found me.
"I'm just trying to do what I could out there."
"He deserves the right to decide that game," Martelli said. "We put the ball in his hands to decide it."