The last thing Saint Joseph’s basketball players usually read before they leave the locker room is one word: “Win.” It’s the word coach Phil Martelli typically goes with.
But after three straight defeats and losses in four of five since losing top scorer Shavar Newkirk to a season-ending knee injury on Dec. 30, Martelli decided to change what he wrote on the board.
Saturday night at the Palestra, in a St. Joe’s home game against Big 5 rival Penn, Martelli said he wrote: “Chase the taste.”
Led by sophomore point guard Lamarr Kimble, who played all 40 minutes, the Hawks tasted a victory, holding off the Quakers, 78-71 (see Instant Replay).
“To walk around for two weeks without a win, it’s been miserable,” Martelli said. “And I haven’t made it easier on them. Because we are not injured. This team is not injured. The team that got dressed in that locker room and came out on the court, that’s our team. Everybody starts the conversation with: ‘Due to the injuries have you…’ No. It has nothing to do with it. There’s injuries all over the country.
“But the recurring themes, the turnovers, really, in a way, insanity. Shot selection at times, insanity. All of that had to be corrected and it had to be corrected in a harsh way. I wasn’t really that pleased with myself but I had to get after them and make sure they knew no one felt sorry for them.”
With Newkirk gone for the year, the Hawks are probably going to go as far as the Neumann-Goretti grad takes them. In a familiar building, one which he tasted Catholic League titles in, Kimble led all scorers with 23 points. He added five assists and three rebounds.
But, most importantly, he had just two turnovers. In the five previous contests since Newkirk’s injury, Kimble had 31 turnovers, including nine last time out in a loss to Massachusetts.
“First of all his leadership hasn’t changed at all,” Martelli said. “He’s been very forceful, very accountable. He has not played well.”
You wouldn’t have known it Saturday night.
The confident guard shot 6 of 13 from the floor, including 2 for 5 from deep, and made nine of his 11 free throw attempts. In a game which the Hawks utilized a speed advantage to play, as Martelli called it, “downhill,” Kimble and James Demery (9 of 12 from the line) really opened up the floor in the second half after Penn had battled back from a 15-point deficit to take a brief lead.
The Hawks (9-9, 2-4 Atlantic 10) got to the line 43 times (shooting 72 percent) while Penn (6-9) took just 15 free throws.
Demery had 15 points for the game, 11 coming in the second half. Freshman Charlie Brown contributed a career-high 19 points and nine boards.
The three of them were critical down the stretch in pulling away from Penn, which got 19 points from Matt Howard and 15 from freshman Ryan Betley.
Betley hit a big corner three to pull Penn within four, 66-62, with 2:44 left. But after two Brown free throws and a stop on defense, Kimble was fouled shooting a three pointer by Penn’s Jackson Donahue with the shot clock expiring. The miss would have given Penn a chance with a manageable clock.
Instead, he made two of his three attempts and pushed the lead to eight with just over a minute and a half left.
“There was a lot going into this game,” Kimble said. “One, playing at the Palestra, everybody knows the amount of history. It’s the Mecca, basically. The place to play in college basketball. Two, reversing our three-game losing streak and trying to start fresh. We know that if we took our losses and took our stunts that we still have the chance to improve as a group.
“It does a lot. It’s definitely a confidence booster. We’ve got a lot of young kids. Young kids ride on winning. When you’re losing, it’s difficult to turn that around when you’re younger. We don’t have the most experienced group so we definitely have to take our wins and just ride on that and keep pushing. Hopefully the energy has changed and it’ll hopefully carry on to the next game.”
That next game is Tuesday.
“Tomorrow we start for a tough game at St. Bonaventure,” Martelli said. “And we start that in eighth place. That’s average for the league. And 9-9 (overall) is average."
Up to this point, they’ve been exactly that: average. Martelli acknowledged as much.
But Saturday changed the taste in the locker room. And provided enough proof to say Kimble’s play will go a long way in determining the fate of the Hawks.
“I’m with him. He’s with me,” Martelli said. “And we’ll ride this out.”