Saint Joseph’s freshman Pierfrancesco Oliva's journey to becoming a college athlete is an unusual one.
In fact, just two short years ago, the true freshman was living in his hometown of Taranto, Italy.
And on Friday night, in his first-ever collegiate game, the 6-foot-8 forward earned a surprise start.
“When I told him the other night that he was starting, he was non-pulsed,” St. Joe’s head coach Phil Martelli said. “He just looked at me.”
Oliva sure didn’t waste any time proving that he belongs on the court.
On the Hawks' second possession of the game, Oliva, who goes by "Checco," touched the ball for the first time. While some might freeze up, being thrown into a big situation like that, Oliva didn’t hesitate to fire a three-pointer to give the Hawks a 5-0 lead. That’s confidence that can’t be taught.
But it wasn’t all about offense on Friday night for Oliva. He more than held his own on the defensive end of the floor.
To start the game, Oliva was on Drexel senior Tavon Allen. Allen is expected to play a large role for the Dragons this season, with last year’s leading-scorer, Damion Lee, now at Louisville. Oliva held the big man to just two points in St. Joe's 82-81 win over Drexel at Hagan Arena (see story).
Oliva earned the start over junior Javon Baumann, from Germany, and red-shirt freshman Markell Lodge. That’s some serious talent and experience playing behind Oliva.
Martelli had the confidence to put Oliva back on the court in crunch time. With just seven minutes remaining in the game, and the Hawks clinging to a five-point lead, Oliva returned to the floor.
And Oliva rewarded Martelli’s decision by immediately turning the tide of the game. Oliva had a huge block on on a Drexel dunk attempt that would have brought the Dragons within three points. He then hustled down the floor and made a nice bounce pass to All-American DeAndre’ Bembry for the finish.
Bembry, a future NBA prospect, knows a thing or two about talent. He praised Oliva’s prowess.
“He did really well tonight,” Bembry said of his teammate. “That definitely helped him gain some confidence. He really has a very high basketball IQ. When I tell him things, he really understands.”
On the next Hawks possession, the freshman got an offensive rebound and capped it off with an easy layup to put the Hawks up by seven.
Oliva wasn’t done there, however. With the Hawks up by nine, Oliva drained a three-pointer to put the game away with two and half minutes to go.
“That last three, the one that kind of put the dagger on it, was extraordinary,” Martellli said.
Drexel immediately called a timeout and Oliva pumped his fists and let out a yell at half court.
In that 30-second sequence, Oliva showed exactly what makes him such an intriguing option for the Hawks going forward.
Oliva gave the Hawks the spark they needed to finish off the Dragons. From his huge block that got it all started, the Hawks went on a 15-8 run that ended with his three-pointer.
Oliva finished with 12 points, four assists, four rebounds and three blocks. He never looked out of place.
When Martelli first told Oliva he would be starting, he didn’t think that he had earned it.
“He said that he didn’t think that he played that well in the preseason and that he would play better,” Martelli said.
He sure showed it on Friday.