A-10 preview: DeAndre' Bembry gives St. Joe's hope

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A-10 preview: DeAndre' Bembry gives St. Joe's hope

At this time of year, every team in the country will come up with reasons why it can conjure a little bit of March magic and go on a run in its conference tournament.

For a team that finished four games below .500 overall and in the Atlantic 10, Saint Joseph’s probably has as good of a reason to be optimistic as any of them.

That’s because of DeAndre’ Bembry, the Hawks’ electrifying swingman who will be the best player at the Barclays Center every time St. Joe’s plays in the Atlantic 10 tournament, starting with Thursday’s tilt against St. Bonaventure (6:30 p.m., NBCSN).

“We’re going in saying, ‘How do we win on Thursday?’” St. Joe’s head coach Phil Martelli said. “We can win Thursday because we have the best player on the court. But everyone around him has to pick him up and support him.”

It’s the second part of that equation that has led to some struggles for the Hawks (13-17, 7-11), who limp into the A-10 tourney as the No. 10 seed after dropping four of their last five regular-season games. But Bembry has shown the ability to carry his team on his back, as he did when he poured in 33 points to lead the Hawks to a crucial road victory over UMass on Feb. 25 or when he finished with 21 points and 17 rebounds in a win over A-10 regular season champ Davidson on Jan. 31.

And the sophomore feels good about how the freshmen are evolving, as well as the leadership he and fellow captain Chris Wilson bring after both were starters on last year’s team that stormed to an A-10 tourney title. If the Hawks can beat seventh-seeded St. Bonaventure (17-12, 10-8) on Thursday, they’ll advance to Friday’s quarterfinal round where second-seeded Dayton awaits. The semifinals and title game will then be held on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.

“We’re definitely ready, especially after what happened last year since we won the championship,” Bembry said. “There’s a lot of excitement. ... We’re feeling confident. We feel like if we can beat St. Bonnies, the last game we had against Dayton was a battle to the last seconds.”

A confident Bembry should be a scary thought for the rest of the A-10. Averaging 17.9 points per game, Bembry is the first-ever St. Joe’s player to lead the Atlantic 10 in scoring, a remarkable feat when you consider the players that have come through the program over the years. And his numbers are impressive across the board. He ranks in the top 15 in the A-10 in 10 of 13 categories, including rebounding (7.8), assists (3.6) and steals (1.9). On Tuesday, he was named to the All-Atlantic 10 first team as well as the U.S. Basketball Writers Association All-District 2 team.

“When you rank, in my 20 years, individual great seasons, his is right up there with probably Jameer [Nelson’s] junior year and Pat Carroll’s senior year,” Martelli said. “It’s extraordinary.”

Bembry also ranks second in the nation in minutes played (38.6 per game), which has led to Martelli's holding him out of Monday practices to keep him fresh. But the St. Joe’s coach isn’t overly concerned about the possibility of his star player playing 40 minutes a game for four straight days.

“I don’t have any second thoughts about playing him so many minutes,” Martelli said. “He’s played so many minutes because he’s the most important player in the league and he’s the most important player to our team.”

Besides, Bembry wouldn’t have it any other way. He admits playing so much can be tiring at times, but he says it’s something he’s used to from high school. And getting the opportunity to constantly stay on the floor has only raised the sophomore’s confidence throughout the season — which, in turn, has led to his eye-popping statistics.

“I wasn’t expecting to have this good of a year,” he said. “It just happened. I just got into a certain mode. I felt comfortable with my game, and my teammates too.

“I do feel like I can’t be guarded. At certain times, it’s pretty hard to score that much when certain teams are zoned in about me. But I feel very confident in myself.”

The question, of course, for the Hawks is whether one confident star can lead them to their second straight Atlantic 10 tournament championship. Martelli, though, prefers to not even think about last year’s magical run in Brooklyn because many of the players from that year’s team are no longer at St. Joe’s. Now, it’s Bembry’s turn to try to lead the Hawks back to the Big Dance.

“We’re not defending anything,” Martelli said. “The trophy’s in the case. The rings are on people’s fingers. Hopefully the players will have the feel like, ‘This is the hotel, this is how we’re going to get over there, this is what it feels like to play there.’ So that’s the only thing. But we’re not walking in there with a swagger because we won a championship there last year.”

NCAA Tournament wrap: UNC edges out Kentucky on Maye game-winner

NCAA Tournament wrap: UNC edges out Kentucky on Maye game-winner

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Luke Maye hit a jumper with 0.3 seconds left, and top-seeded North Carolina held off Kentucky 75-73 to earn the Tar Heels' second straight trip to the Final Four and 20th all-time in Sunday's showdown of college basketball's elite in the South Regional.

The Tar Heels (31-7) will play Midwest champ Oregon on Saturday in Phoenix in the national semifinal.

North Carolina took control with a 12-0 run within the final 5 minutes. Kentucky's freshmen De'Aaron Fox and Malik Monk hit three quick 3s, the last two by Monk and his second with 7.2 seconds left tied it up at 73.

Theo Pinson brought the ball down, passed back to Maye. The sophomore from Huntersville, North Carolina, knocked it down for the win with his feet on the 3-point line.

The Wildcats had one last chance, but Derek Willis' inbound pass went out of bounds on the far end.

Kentucky (32-6) will miss out on the Final Four for the second straight year.

South Carolina beats Florida to reach first Final Four
NEW YORK -- It's only right that South Carolina's first trip to Final Four was earned through its defense.

A team known for a swarming zone used it effectively down the stretch to beat Florida 77-70 on Sunday and win the East Regional at Madison Square Garden.

Sindarius Thornwell scored 26 points for the seventh-seeded Gamecocks (26-10) against the fourth-seeded Gators (27-9) in the all-Southeastern Conference matchup.

South Carolina will face Gonzaga, the No. 1 seed from the West Regional, in the Final Four on Saturday at Glendale, Arizona.

"Gamecock Nation, we heard you loud and clear," coach Frank Martin roared as the team prepared to cut down the nets. "We'll see you in Phoenix."

The game was as close as expected until the final minute. There were 14 lead changes and 10 ties. The last lead change came on two free throws by Thornwell with 2:24 left that made it 65-63. Florida managed just three field goals over the final 3:55.

Thornwell, the regional MVP, followed the deciding free throws with a nice assist to Maik Kotsar for a 4-point lead. It seemed Thornwell, who scored eight straight points for the Gamecocks, was always where he needed to be including making a steal with 40 seconds left that turned into a 73-68 lead.

"I just made plays," Thornwell said. "Plays needed to be made down the stretch and I stepped up and made plays."

"Thornwell was just being Thornwell," Florida coach Mike White said of the SEC player of the year. "He's one of the best players in the country."

PJ Dozier added 17 points for the Gamecocks, Chris Silva had 13 and Kotsar 12.

It all totaled to a Final Four trip for Martin, he of the booming voice and terrifying faces.

Justin Leon had 18 points for the Gators who managed a 40-33 halftime lead on 7-for-12 shooting from 3-point range. But that was it. Florida was 0 for 14 from beyond the arc in the second half, a lot like the 0-for-17 effort the Gators had in their first meeting with South Carolina this season.

South Carolina, which forced Florida into 16 turnovers, finished 23 for 31 from the free throw line, including a 9-for-10 effort from Thornwell.

NCAA Tournament Wrap: Gonzaga reaches 1st Final Four; Oregon upsets Kansas

NCAA Tournament Wrap: Gonzaga reaches 1st Final Four; Oregon upsets Kansas

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Tyler Dorsey poured in 27 points, Dillon Brooks added 17 and plucky Oregon ended Kansas' romp through the NCAA Tournament with a 74-60 victory Saturday night that gave the Ducks their first Final Four trip in nearly 80 years.

Dylan Ennis added 12 points for the Ducks (33-5), who took the lead with 16 minutes left in the first half and never trailed again, giving coach Dana Altman his first trip to the national semifinals.

They'll face the winner of Sunday's game between North Carolina and Kentucky in Glendale, Arizona.

Player of the year front-runner Frank Mason III had 21 points in his final game for the Jayhawks (31-5), who had rolled to the Elite Eight by an average margin of 30 points. But their dream season ended with a thud just 40 minutes from campus on a night where very little went right (see full recap).

Gonzaga beats Xavier to reach 1st Final Four
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Nigel Williams-Goss scored 23 points while orchestrating Gonzaga's efficient offense, and the Zags finally shook their overrated tag by routing Xavier 83-59 on Saturday to reach the Final Four for the first time.

Gonzaga (36-1) has been dogged by criticism through the years despite winning consistently, in part for playing in a weak conference but also for never making the Final Four.

On the cusp of history, the Zags took it head on with a superb all-around game to give coach Mark Few the one missing piece of his resume.

Gonzaga found the range from the perimeter after struggling the first three NCAA games, making 12 of 24 from 3-point range. The defense, a soft spot in the past, shut down the underdog and 11th-seeded Musketeers (24-14) to win the West Region.

The Zags will face the winner between South Carolina and Florida in next week's Final Four in Arizona (see full recap).