For DeAndre Bembry, the second time was sweeter. Saint Joseph’s junior guard had been part of an Atlantic 10 champion as a freshman. He knew the elation. But after the team cratered to a 13-18 finish in his sophomore year there was context when the Hawks took the title again on Sunday.
“[We were] one of the worst teams in the A-10 last year,” Bembry said, a shock of rope from the net behind his ear after the 87-74 win over VCU at Barclays Center. “We’re just happy that 80 percent of the guys that were on that team last year [are] on this team. I’m happy to see that we went through the struggles together and now we’re going through the highs together.”
VCU is the team that most often gets described as “relentless,” but the Hawks (27-7) were the ones who were relentless in their pursuit of the conference’s automatic NCAA Tournament bid. They attacked the Rams’ trapping defense with precise cutting and passing, shot 65 percent from the floor in the first half and never let up. It was another 65 percent after the break. They never cooled down.
Bembry scored 30 points on 13-for-16 shooting, tourney Most Outstanding Player Isaiah Miles had 26 points on 11-for-16 shooting to go with 12 rebounds and Aaron Brown added 13 points. They were a three-headed monster in the first 20 minutes totaling 38 points and 18-for-25 shooting as the Hawks rolled into halftime up 43-34.
Brown set the tone with aggressive drives early for 10 of the first 16 points. “He came out swinging. When he said like he wanted to punch first, everyone knew that he was punching,” Miles said.
Added Bembry: “Before I knew him coach Martelli told me he was a dog in high school, and I’m happy that he brought the dog out today for us.”
SJU increased its lead to 70-49 with 8:45 left before the one bad blemish on the Hawks’ day created an opening for VCU to nearly get back in the game. Papa Ndao, the hero of Saturday’s semifinals, was whistled for a foul under the basket, got a technical for swearing at the official and then got ejected on a second technical as he continued yelling en route to the bench.
“What Papa Ndao did was embarrassing. I’ve never, ever had that happen, and I am infuriated about that,” Martelli said. “That’s not how we represent ourselves. I apologize to the Atlantic 10 that that would be a way the league was shown nationally.”
The Rams (24-10) pressured and got within 75-68 on a Jordan Burgess trey with 4:28 left, but no closer, Bembry had seven of the Hawks’ last 12 points including a backdoor cut for a dunk and three-point play on a drive down the right side.
JaQuan Lewis and Korey Billbury both scored 19 points for VCU.