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Jerry Sullivan 2004: Saint Joseph's validates its No. 1 seed

Hawks' West points the way

Sure, they heard the skeptics. How could you not hear them? Everywhere you turned last week, someone was questioning Saint Joseph's worthiness as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Over the last 10 years, six No. 1 seeds had gone down in the second round. By Saturday, the Hawks were the chic pick to make it seven.

"Oh, yeah," West said. "We heard everybody talking about us on the radio. Right before the game, I heard somebody say Saint Joe's would be the first to fall off."

Well, they're still standing.

Saturday night in HSBC Arena, with the nation waiting for the top seed in the East to come tumbling to earth, little Saint Joseph's gutted out an entertaining, 70-65 victory over Bobby Knight and Texas Tech to make the Sweet 16.

It's hard to predict what will happen from here. Once you get to the second week, a game can be decided by a single play, a stroke of luck, a referee's lapse of judgment.

It is also difficult to know if Billy Packer was swayed by the Hawks' performance here, or if he likes them next week against his alma mater, Wake Forest.

But I know this: They're capable of winning the national championship.

The Hawks don't have to apologize to anyone -- not for their No. 1 seed in the East Rutherford regional, for their unorthodox style of play, or the quality of their league, the Atlantic 10.

Saint Joseph's didn't get to be 29-1 by accident. You don't compile that sort of record without a great player or two, a terrific coach, a strong, relentless defense, and most important of all, the ability to close out a game. That's what was most impressive about them Saturday.

In the final minutes, during the crucible that Magic Johnson called "Winning Time," Saint Joseph's made the plays that were necessary at both ends to close out an opponent from the formidable Big 12.
As always, it was Jameer Nelson who made the biggest plays. Nelson, living up to his player-of-the-year reputation, scored 10 of the Hawks' last 15 points, including a clutch three-pointer from the top of the key to make it 66-62 with 2:33 to play.

"We're excited about going to the Sweet 16," West said, "but we were mostly excited about the way we finished. We usually practice in four-minute spurts. We were concentrating on finishing out the last four minutes. And who else in America would you want with the ball in his hands at the end of a game in a clutch situation?"

Nelson is a wondrous talent, the key to everything the Hawks do. But teams rarely get far with one great player. The thing that makes Saint Joseph's so good, so dangerous, is that it has two. Without West, they're just another good team.

But if he's your second-best player, you have a legitimate chance to go a long way in the tournament.
West, a 6-foot-4 off guard, had his rough moments. He committed six turnovers. But midway through the first half, when Saint Joseph's took control with a 24-2 run, he basically took the game over.
He was the best player on the floor, scoring nine straight points in a 1:42 stretch to pull the Hawks from a 21-15 deficit to a 24-21 lead. They never trailed again.

"At that point in the game, our team was down and we needed offense," said West. "We needed to get some confidence and get our feet wet, and I took it upon myself to get some things rolling. After that, guys started getting confidence and hitting some shots, so they didn't need me to take every shot."

Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli, who more than held his own against Knight, made a key adjustment after halftime. He put the ball in West's hands, allowing his point guard, Nelson, to play without the ball.
It opened up the offense and helped keep Nelson fresh for the final moments.

"We knew that they were going to start keying in on me," West said. "So we decided to take Jameer off the ball and create some chaos by running him off screens. As hard as he is to guard off the dribble, he's harder to guard off the ball. It worked out for us."

In the critical moments, the Hawks cleared out and let Nelson operate. Still, West had one more big play in him. With 24 seconds to play and Saint Joseph's up three, 68-65, the ball went to West near the top of the key. He drove into the lane, drew the Texas Tech big men to him and dropped off to Dwayne Jones for the hoop that sealed the win.

West finished with 15 points, eight assists and seven rebounds. All in all, a typical night's work for the junior from Greenbelt, Md. He is second in scoring (18.8), assists (4.6), rebounds (5.5) and steals (1.7).
He shoots 50.9 percent from the field, 42.5 percent from three-point range and 89.1 percent from the line.

Still, Martelli wasn't happy with him afterward. He felt West had taken too long to assert himself and made too many ill-advised passes. That's fine with West. He knows Martelli holds him to a high standard, and he has the same feeling about his team.

Early in the season, West began uttering the words "national championship" at practice. He tossed the idea out there, "just to see how the guys would react. Since I've been here, I had not heard one player mention something about a national championship. I felt compelled to say it."

He still believes it can happen. There's a long way to go, but they're not done yet. It turns out Stanford was the No. 1 who went down in round two.

"We're still here, you know," West said, "and we plan on staying."

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