THE FULL NELSON
SAINT JOSEPH'S STAR TAKES OVER IN ROUT OF LIBERTY
For 20 minutes, this was the way Saint Joseph's has played most of the season. On Thursday at least, it was more than enough.
Suffocating defense. Swift passing. Three-pointers from all sides of the court. And, most important, another opponent sentenced to an early demise.
All-Everything point guard Jameer Nelson lit up the HSBC Arena scoreboard for 22 of his season-high 33 points in the first half Thursday as the top-seeded Hawks crushed No. 16 Liberty, 82-63, in their first-round game of the NCAA East Rutherford regional.
Saint Joseph's (28-1) hit 15 of 29 shots in the first half, including 7 of 12 three-pointers, and never trailed. Nelson scored the game's first seven points and that was that. The Hawks meet Texas Tech here Saturday night at 5:30.
For the game, Nelson canned 11 of 17 from the field (3 of 6 from three-point range) and 8 of 9 at the free throw line.
He had four assists, three steals, three rebounds and just one turnover in 30 minutes as Saint Joseph's bounced back from its 20-point loss to Xavier in the quarterfinals of last week's Atlantic 10 Tournament.
Coach Phil Martelli briefly met with Nelson in the locker room just before the Hawks took the floor. The message was simple.
"I said to him, 'Today, this is what great players live for,' " Martelli recounted. "'Great players lead in this situation.' "
Nelson, the 5-foot-11 senior, is forever deferential to his teammates, even though everyone in the crowd of 18,456 knew he was in charge right from the opening tap. How much of the performance was Nelson saying he had to simply take over?
"None of it," Nelson said. "It was just a matter of my teammates finding me and the ball went in. Coach (Martelli) called the plays for me and the guys got me the ball so I tip my hat to them."
Thursday's victories by Saint Joseph's, Duke and Stanford put the records of No. 1 seeds in the tournament to 79-0 since the field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
Nelson opened the game with a jumper, a three-pointer and two free throws that made it 7-0 after 2 1/2 minutes. Liberty (18-15) pulled within 9-6 before Saint Joseph's exploded on a 16-2 run that put the game away.
That burst concluded with a trio of three-pointers in a 70-second span, two by reserve guard Tyrone Barley and one by Nelson. The Hawks led by as many as 22 points and settled for a 46-26 halftime lead.
The margin never got below 18 in the second half and Saint Joseph's led by as many as 27. Delonte West added 18 points and nine rebounds.
Liberty, meanwhile, struggled against the Hawks' defensive pressure. The Flames committed 26 turnovers in the game and fell behind quickly as they hit just 9 of 25 from the field in the first half.
"We let our defense dictate our offense the last game," Nelson said of the Xavier debacle. "It was like a bonus for our shots to be going in because our defense was turned up."
Liberty got 22 points off the bench from freshman David Dees, who hit 7 of 9 from the field. The Flames shot 50 percent in the second half, while holding Saint Joseph's to just 12 of 31 overall and 1 of 11 from long range.
Saint Joseph's had 14 turnovers and several missed layups, areas of concern for Martelli that tempered his view of the defensive effort.
"It was good to see our speed was back defensively," Martelli said.
Saturday's game will be the first time Saint Joseph's can make a true statement it belongs as a No. 1 seed. CBS commentator Billy Packer sent Philadelphia fans -- and Martelli -- into an uproar Sunday when he said the Hawks didn't deserve it.
"(The players) don't even know who he is," Martelli said, matter of factly. "His time has passed in terms of the impact on these kids."
Martelli has concerns about how his team finished this game but his bottom line was that the Hawks did exactly what they were supposed to do.
"There's now 32 teams left (in the tournament) when we play on Saturday," he said. "That was the mission coming in. Not any kind of statement."