There was a lot to feel good about for St. Joseph’s on Saturday and not just the obvious. Yes, the Hawks were able to erase the last doubts about whether they belong in the NCAA Tournament by turning in a strong performance and hanging on for an 82-79 Atlantic 10 semifinal win over top-seeded Dayton at Barclays Center. But also, it was senior Papa Ndao who got them there.
At the end of a season in which many wondered whether he’d be able to play, Ndao (pronounced ‘now’) scored a career-high 14 points — including a pair of three-pointers when the lead was in peril late — to get fourth-seeded St. Joe’s to Sunday’s 12:30 p.m. championship game where it will meet second-seeded Virginia Commonwealth.
“[Papa] was big, and he cares a great deal. You could feel him over this last stretch of time,” Hawks coach Phil Martelli said. “He’s a senior on this team. As the senior elder statesman, I could feel it, the sands of time going through the hourglass with him, and delighted for his performance.”
The 6-8, 220-pounder from Senegal had to miss all of last season with an illness. Though the members of the St. Joseph’s program have not been told the exact nature of the malady, it clearly it was a serious situation.
“The doctor was talking about if he could get out of bed and function . . . So this was like serious stuff,” Martelli said. “He’s an unusual dude in that he takes everything like he’s got it, he’ll fix it, [but] he was scared. He was scared that day because he saw the look on my face as the doctor was explaining [it] to me.”
On Saturday, he was back to being the guy who could fix it. St. Joseph’s (26-7) pulled ahead of the Flyers with a 17-2 run late in the first half the lead grew to 13 early in the second half. But twice as the teams headed down the stretch, Dayton got within three points. A Kyle Davis layup cut the Hawks’ lead to 55-52 with 8:39 left to play and Ndao answered 21 seconds later with a three-pointer from the top of the arc. A three-point play by Dayton’s Dyshawn Pierre got the Flyers within 58-55 with 6:50 left and 14 seconds later Ndau hit another trey from the left wing.
That was the first in a run of 11 possessions in which St. Joe’s scored nine times. The team led by double digits in the final minute and held together in the face of a furious Dayton run.
“Every shot that he took today was a big shot,” said DeAndre Bembry, who had nine points and eight assists. “That’s just the confidence we have in him and that’s the confidence he has in himself. I’m just happy for [him]. We know that he has that in him and he hit shot after shot for us tonight.”
Isaiah Miles led the Hawks with 26 points and nine rebounds and Aaron Brown added 16 points. Pierre had 22 points to lead Dayton (25-7) and Scoochie Smith of the Bronx added 14 points and 11 assists.
Ndao has been described by Martelli as “serious,” but now that the Hawks have come within a win of their second championship in three years, he doesn’t sound like he’ll be able to relish Saturday without the win on Sunday.
“It’s kind of special, but in a way it’s just another day,” said Ndao, who made four of his last five shots. “I feel like until we win a championship, every game is just a game just to get there. It’s just a push to get what we want basically.”