Result: Saint Joseph's, 90-83 in 68 possessions
Seminal Play: After Rhode Island forward Will Daniels hit a three-pointer that cut Saint Joseph's lead to six points with 2:54 to play in the game, the Hawks expertly sliced through the Rams' full-court pressure defense to silence the crowd. Guard Darrin Govens tossed the ball ahead to wide-open forward Ahmad Nivins, streaking in from the left to the basket, and Nivins slammed it home to give Saint Joseph's an 80-72 lead.
Quotable: “Getting a road win at this point in the year against a 20-win team is very, very significant. The separation is going to be road wins, and road wins are going to take real value as you go towards byes in this league [tournament], and to get your name on that board in the room in March.”
—Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli, on the importance of his team's win in Rhode Island for its postseason positioning.
The Big Picture: The Hawks stopped a recent slide which had seen them lose three of four games by picking up a huge road victory over arguably the Atlantic 10's third best team in Rhode Island. With the win, Saint Joseph's set itself up to gain the No. 2 seed in the A-10 tournament and capture an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament. The Rams, meanwhile, continued their struggles on defense, and with three straight conference losses are watching their chance at an NCAA Tournament at-large berth slip away.
KINGSTON, R.I.—With an extremely efficient offensive performance on Sunday evening at the Ryan Center, Saint Joseph's beat Rhode Island 90-83 and soared above the mediocre mass of teams in the middle of the Atlantic 10 to declare themselves the clear-cut second-best team in the conference.
Led by a balanced scoring effort in which all five starters put up double figures, the Hawks (17-8, 8-4 A-10) shot 72 eFG% from the floor, their highest rate of the conference season, and put up more than 1.3 points per possession for the third straight game. With the victory, Saint Joseph's claimed sole possession of second place in the Atlantic 10 behind Xavier, and solidified its case for an NCAA Tournament at-large berth.
Rhode Island (20-8, 6-7) suffered its third consecutive home defeat, and fifth in its past six games, to fall below .500 in the conference and put its chances for an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament, once probable, in serious jeopardy. The Rams slumping defense was helpless against St. Joseph's efficient double-pronged inside-outside attack, as Rhode Island could not dampen the Hawks' three-point offense (Saint Joseph's was 9-of-16 from long range) nor keep the taller Hawks from getting the ball in deep and going to the free-throw line (19-of-29 from two and 25-of-30 on free-throws). Rhode Island saw its defense give up more points per possession than it had in the previous game for the fifth straight contest, a disturbing trend that bodes ill for the Rams being able to recover in their last three Atlantic 10 affairs.
“A lot of teams are coming after us, because we've got 20 wins,” Rhode Island coach Jim Baron said. “We're a little bit shaken now, with losing the games that we've lost. And our confidence is a little rattled.”
The key stretch in the game came in the first half, when Saint Joseph's pulled away from the Rams despite the absence of two of its best players. Junior forward Ahmad Nivins picked up his second foul with 13:22 to play and immediately went to the bench for the rest of the half. Nivins' partner in the frontcourt, senior Pat Calathes, a 6'10 forward who is the team's best three-point shooter, picked up his second foul on a charge call just about a minute later, with Rhode Island holding a 15-14 lead. Hawks coach Phil Martelli sat down Calathes, who leads Saint Joseph's in minutes, possessions used, and percentage of shots taken, and Calathes would not return until under a minute remained in the first half.
By that time, however, Nivins and Calathes' teammates had already taken control of the game. Saint Joseph's went with a small lineup, and the Hawks, who play their bench less than all but five other Division I teams, got important minutes from guards D.J. Rivera and Garrett Williamson off the pine. Williamson scored six points and had two rebounds in his 13 first-half minutes.
“The minutes off our bench were very, very significant,” Martelli said. “[Williamson] gave us some purpose on offense. The thing that jumps out to me is the performance of the bench players making sure that things stayed stable when we had to play without Pat [Calathes] and Ahmad [Nivins].”
After playing even with Rhode Island for the first five minutes in which Calathes and Nivins were both on the bench, the Hawks' prolific offense opened fire with a resounding salvo. With the score tied at 24, Saint Joseph's scored 18 points on its next eight possessions, running off an 18-4 run that put the Hawks up 42-28. Back-to-back conventional three-point plays by guards Tasheed Carr and Darrin Govens began the stretch, and back-to-back three-point shots closed it, fired by Carr and forward Rob Ferguson.
The Hawks, who entered the game leading the Atlantic 10 and ranking eighth nationally with a 40.4 three-point percentage, hit 5-of-8 three-pointers in the first half to go into the break with a 44-33 lead. Saint Joseph's continued to connect from long range at the beginning of the second half, knocking down three of its first four attempts. Both the second and third of those makes came from Govens, who finished 4-of-5 from deep for a team-high 18 points. Those two shots each pushed the Saint Joseph's lead up to 19, the second coming at the 13:48 mark as the Hawks threatened to blow the Rams out of their own gym.
While Rhode Island never was able to get completely back into it, senior forward Will Daniels did provide the 6,834 fans in attendance with some excitement by hitting a three-pointer with 2:54 remaining that cut the Saint Joseph's lead to 78-72. With the Rams pressing in the backcourt, Saint Joseph's threaded the ball through the trap, and as Rhode Island's defense tried to scramble back into position, Govens threw the ball ahead to forward Ahmad Nivins for a dunk.
Rams forward Joe Mbang scored on the ensuing possession to get the deficit back to six, but Nivins again answered at the other end, nailing a jumper that made it 82-74 with 1:53 left. From that point forward, Calathes hit 8-of-9 from the free-throw line to salt away the victory.
Besides Govens' strong effort, Ferguson scored 17 points on 6-of-7 shooting and grabbed a game-high six rebounds, and Calathes, aided by his last-minute free-throws, scored 16 and had six boards. Rhode Island was led by Daniels, who had a game-high 24 points on 7-of-12 shooting. Sophomore forward Delroy James posted his second straight strong game off the bench, scoring 13 points on 6-of-11 shooting and grabbing five rebounds in 19 minutes. Starting shooting guard Jimmy Baron, who is second on the team in eFG%, struggled to the tune of 1-of-6 from the floor for three points, and has shot only 25 percent in his last six games.
“He's in a rut,” Martelli said. “When you shoot the way he shoots from the distance he shoots, you earn the defense that you get. No one is going to allow him to get a real good clean look. If you watch their last several games that's been the case, and certainly we wanted it to be the case today.”
With their home arena having been anything but a sanctuary in the past week, the reeling Rams will look to get right on the road when they travel to George Washington and La Salle next Wednesday and Saturday. Saint Joseph's returns home next week to play St. Louis and Temple.
Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Basketball Prospectus. He can be reached here.