As college career ends, St. Joe's Aaron Brown ready for final March

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As college career ends, St. Joe's Aaron Brown ready for final March

There were times when Aaron Brown felt alone.

Not only was he 300 miles from home and missing his family and friends, but he also wasn’t quite sure why his playing time with the West Virginia men’s basketball was drying up.

But whenever he felt that way, Brown knew exactly what to do: Call his father, William Brown.

“It was tough, man,” said the younger Brown, now a senior at St. Joe's. “There were nights I would call him frustrated. He always had the right thing to say. I’d like to thank him for that.”

These days, the elder Brown goes to every one of his son's home games and takes long car rides for most of the road contests, too. But back then, when the Darby native and former Penn Wood High star played for West Virginia during the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons, Brown’s father couldn’t get to as many games as he would have liked. Instead, he tried to lift his son's spirits as often as he could on the phone, telling him to work hard and keep his head up.

And even though Brown had some good moments with the Mountaineers, including getting the starting nod in their 2012 first-round NCAA Tournament game vs. Gonzaga, they both agreed it was time to move on and try something else after two seasons in Morgantown.

"When he wanted to transfer, he said, 'Dad, I want to come back home,'" William Brown recalled from the Hagan Arena lobby during halftime of the Hawks’ win over Saint Louis on Sunday. "I said, 'Fine, pick a school you want to play for, talk about it and find a good fit for you.'"

In many ways, that school was always going to be St. Joe's, which recruited him hard while he was at Penn Wood, where he won a state title in 2010. And it’s definitely fair to say that picking the Hawks worked well as Brown is now a veteran fifth-year senior on a surprisingly dominant SJU team that will go for its 25th win of the season Wednesday night vs. St. Bonaventure before coming home to face Duquesne in its regular-season finale Saturday — Brown’s final game on Hawk Hill.

"I've been through a lot of ups and downs in my career,” Brown said. "To finish my college career on top, having a very good season, with the chance of doing some good things in March — that’s all I can ask for."

Brown might not be the star player he was in high school anymore but he doesn’t have to be. DeAndre’ Bembry and Isaiah Miles, two of the best players in the Atlantic 10, handle that just fine. Like everyone else on the Hawks, Brown understands his role, emerging as a very solid third option (he’s third on the team in scoring at 9.1 ppg). And unlike his rocky tenure at West Virginia, Brown feels secure in his place in the rotation, having started every game this season while providing valuable leadership, on and off the court.

“He’s handled his business like a senior — and I mean his business here on the court and his business on the hill,” St. Joe’s head coach Phil Martelli said. “He’s driven to get a degree, and that’s watched by everyone here because for a long time you would have identified him as a guy that’s just into basketball.

“And he’s been willing to sacrifice. As Isaiah’s game has taken off, Aaron’s opportunities have become a little less frequent. But he fits. From a very young age, he’s been driven to win, and he has brought that winning approach to our locker room and on the court for us.”

Brown got his first taste of winning at St. Joe’s during his transfer year two seasons ago.

It hardly mattered that he couldn’t play in games because of NCAA transfer rules; he still felt like a big part of the team because of the fierce battles he had against ex-Hawks star Langston Galloway in practice, among others. And Martelli still marvels at how quickly Brown got onto the court from the stands to celebrate the Hawks’ 2014 Atlantic 10 Tournament championship.

"I would say this," Martelli recalled. "I don’t think anyone was more excited."

Perhaps that shouldn’t have been too surprising. How could he not get excited when his hometown team booked a place in the NCAA Tournament? And that excitement only increased when Brown began to suit up for the Hawks the following season, playing in front of many family and friends, just a few miles from where he grew up, where he likes to return every Sunday for a home-cooked meal.

Of course, the homecoming also came with its share of challenges with Brown admitting he had to "block out some people" and focus on those giving him the "right advice," like his dad. But Martelli thinks those issues are all in the past, especially as Brown has grown and matured.

"I think early on it was hard because the people at home were telling him certain things — out of love, not out of disrespect," the St. Joe’s coach said. "And I think that he heard the noise and kind of didn't know which way to turn. But I think certainly this year he's been very zeroed in on what I have to say to him about academics, what I have to say about handling his business in the community and what I have to say to him about basketball.

"And the people that have been closest to him have been very supportive because they want success for him."

This season is already a success as St. Joe’s already has matched its best win total since the famous 2003-04 campaign. Did Brown think that was possible after the Hawks sputtered to a losing record last season, his first one playing for them?

"We always thought that if we worked, we could be as a good as anybody," Brown said.

"Everyone asked me, 'How are you guys gonna be? How are you guys gonna be? I was always like, 'Listen, we’re gonna surprise a lot of people.' I’ve been saying that since Day 1 and that’s what we’re doing."

Given their regular-season success, many hope the Hawks will continue to surprise people in the Atlantic 10 tourney and then the NCAA Tournament, where it increasingly looks like they’ll finish their season.

For Brown, that would naturally be a great bookend to his college career — one that proved to be tumultuous but also, in the end, extremely gratifying.

And he’s ready to feel the madness of March one last time as a college basketball player.

"The experience was great," Brown said of his appearance in the 2012 NCAA Tourney. "I enjoyed every minute of it. That’s why I try to stress how important these games are — because that feeling of the NCAA Tournament is like no other. I would like everyone to feel that."

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).