Saint Joseph's beats VCU to win Atlantic 10 title
NEW YORK >> The Saint Joseph's team that was on its way to an Atlantic 10 regular-season title before stumbling down the stretch showed up in Brooklyn this weekend and played like champions.
DeAndre' Bembry scored 30 points and Isaiah Miles had 26 points and 12 rebounds as the Hawks beat VCU 87-74 on Sunday to win the A-10 Tournament for the second time in three seasons.
The fourth-seeded Hawks (27-7) locked up an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, though they were probably getting in anyway. The second-seeded and defending champion Rams (24-10) will likely be in the field of 68, too.
The Hawks lost their last two games of the season, including a puzzling home loss to Duquesne last Sunday, and three of the final five to slip into fourth place heading into the postseason. Coach Phil Martelli said he was nervous heading into Tuesday's practice.
"The Duquesne game I couldn't explain. When we started on Tuesday, once we reviewed the Duquesne game I just moved on ... I took a second to speak to DeAndre' and he did what he's done for all three years that I've had him and he just looked at me said, 'I got it, we got it, it's all right," said Martelli, who won the A-10 Tournament for the third time in 21 seasons at Saint Joe's.
Bembry said the late-season problems were simple to explain.
"We didn't play defense," he said.
JeQuan Lewis and Korey Billbury each scored 19 points for the Rams, who lost in the title game for the third time in four seasons.
Bembry, the conference player of the year, and Miles, the A-10's most improved player, sliced up the Rams' half-court defense with sharp passes, hard drives to the basket and mid-range jumpers. The Hawks set an A-10 championship game record by shooting 64.8 percent from the field. Bembry shot 81.3 percent (13 for 16) to set another A-10 title shooting-percentage record.
"I thought the passing was extraordinary," Martelli said.
Miles, who was MVP of the tournament, converted a three-point play that made it 70-49 with 8:05 left in the second half and left VCU with its largest deficit of the season.
"Miles and Bembry were phenomenal tonight. They absolutely killed us," VCU coach Will Wade said. "We just didn't do a good enough job of that. But any time you've got two of the five best players on the court, it gives you a chance."
Moments later, two technical fouls on Saint Joe's reserve Papa Ndao for arguing a call gave VCU six free throws that sparked a run for the Rams. They made five and had the lead down to 75-68 when Jordan Burgess hit a 3 with 4:15 left.
That was as close as the Rams would get.
Bembry put an exclamation point on the victory, drawing a foul on a fadeaway that had the Saint Joe's fans chanting "M-V-P!" and with a dunk that made it 85-70 with 1:47 left.
"We didn't end the regular season off how we wanted to, but I'm happy that I won it for this team," Bembry said.
Ndao, who scored a career-high 14 points in Saturday's win against top-seeded Dayton, got an animated lecture from assistant coach Mark Bass, who led the senior off the court and into the tunnel to the locker rooms.
Martelli said he was "embarrassed" with how Ndao acted.
"I've never, ever had that happen, and I am infuriated about that. That's not how we represent ourselves. I apologize to the Atlantic 10 that that would be a way the league was shown nationally," Martelli said.
Saint Joe's: The Hawks scored 54 points in the paint Sunday and 46.3 percent of their points in three tournament games were scored inside. ... The previous record for field goal percentage in an A-10 title game was set by Pittsburgh in 1982.
VCU: The Rams were making their sixth straight appearance in a conference tournament final, including their last two seasons as a member of the Colonial Athletic Association. ... The Rams trailed 43-34 at the break, their first halftime deficit in seven A-10 tournament games since losing to Saint Joseph's in the 2014 title game.
Saint Joseph's: The Hawks are back in the NCAA Tournament after missing out last season. The Hawks are in for the 21st time overall.
VCU: If the Rams get an at-large bid, it will be six straight NCAA Tournament appearances.