Saint Joseph’s comes back to beat George Washington in Atlantic 10 quarterfinals

With the Nets struggling through a lost season, the Barclays Center’s basketball court has been largely devoid of drama for …

With the Nets struggling through a lost season, the Barclays Center’s basketball court has been largely devoid of drama for several months.

Saint Joseph’s and George Washington changed that Friday afternoon with a thrilling quarterfinal game in the Atlantic 10 tournament.

With both teams fighting to preserve hopes of receiving an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament, it was the Hawks who survived. Saint Joseph’s pulled off its biggest comeback of the season as it eliminated a 14-point halftime deficit in an 86-80 victory.

“[My players] were quiet. They were nervous,” Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli said of the mood in the Hawks’ locker room at halftime. “But right in the beginning of the second half, we got three stops. We didn’t score, so you get a little bit concerned, and then we just chopped it up and said, each play, if we can get this play, then we can get the next play, and that’s really what we did.”

An 11-0 run, finished off by a three-pointer by forward DeAndre Bembry, enabled the Hawks to pull with four points, 52-48, in the opening five minutes of the second half.

Bembry, the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year, did it all, finishing with a team-high 21 points. He scored four points in the 8-0 run the Hawks used to clinch the game late in the second half, capping it off with a pair of free throws that made it 81-73 with 1:54 remaining.

“During the timeouts when everybody was overexcited, including assistant coaches, and everybody wants to talk, he was the one that said, ‘Yo, one voice here, one voice,’” Martelli said of Bembry. “Everybody got zeroed in. He kept them calm, and he competed.”

An early George Washington barrage had the Hawks stunned. The Colonials hit 11 of the 16 three pointers they attempted in the first half and finished with 15 treys, the most Saint Joseph’s had surrendered all season.

“We knew that they would miss shots in the second half, so our offense is really not the problem for this team,” Bembry said. “We just knew if we get any stops, we’d come back and score, and that’s what happened.”

Stymied by the Hawks’ decision to switch to a zone defense, the Colonials only scored three field goals in the game’s final five and a half minutes.

“I just think we got pretty stagnant so we let the shot clock get down, and we struggled to go one-on-one, and you know, five seconds or less, you see us chucking threes, we’re not going to win games like that,” George Washington guard Joe McDonald said.

Now, all the Colonials can do is sit and hope for good news on Selection Sunday. They own wins over three teams in the RPI top 50 (Virginia, VCU, Seton Hall) but have now lost three of their last four games. Having entered Friday with a middling RPI of 63, George Washington desperately needed a victory over Saint Joseph’s (RPI: 32) to bolster its resume.

“We’ve had a great season,” Colonials coach Mike Lonergan said. “But [we’re]really sad and heartbroken because we had a golden opportunity today and didn’t take advantage of it.”

Ian Wenik