ATLANTIC CITY - Even though fifth-seeded Saint Joseph's faced the fourth seed on Friday, the Hawks arguably had the toughest assignment of all the teams in the Atlantic 10 Conference men's basketball tournament quarterfinals.
Sure, other teams had to play the one, two or three seeds, but none of them have what St. Bonaventure has: Conference Player of the Year Andrew Nicholson.
He showed the Hawks exactly why he earned that honor in a 71-68 win over St. Joe's. Nicholson was the deciding factor in a game with 24 lead changes and nine ties.
St. Bonaventure will face No. 8 Massachusetts in the semifinals at 1 p.m today at Boardwalk Hall. UMass defeated top-seeded Temple 77-71 in the first game of the early session, which had an announced attendance of 7,022.
"Everything that we had, we threw at him," St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli said. "A lot of credit to (St. Bonaventure coach) Mark Schmidt because they have a lot of ways of getting him in the action. He's a wonderful player. He's a great representative for the league and he's a good player but the coach deserves credit because of how they feature him."
The atmosphere at Boardwalk Hall was decidedly in St. Joe's favor. Just 50 miles from Philadelphia, the arena felt like a home game with St. Joe's fans filling up the seats. It seemed Temple fans, whose team lost the preceding game, were also in the Hawks' corner, hoping to see at least one of the three Philly teams make it to the next day.
Instead, the Philadelphia teams went 0-for-3 with No. 7 La Salle also losing to No. 2 Saint Louis.
Nicholson finished with a game-high 25 points and 10 rebounds, and his biggest plays came with 30 seconds left.
Trailing 69-68, St. Joe's Langston Galloway drove to the middle of the paint, jumped and then passed. However, while Galloway was in the air, he collided with Nicholson, who took the charge.
That was St. Joe's 12th turnover and it diminished greatly the Hawks' chances of getting to the semifinals.
"When I came off the screen, I thought I had the lane once I got past my man," said Galloway, who had 12 points. "I should have pulled up, but I went too far and they called a charge. I didn't think it was a charge because he was a little late, but they called a charge on me."
The Hawks had another chance, however, to at least get the game into overtime, which was reminiscent of their last meeting. In the regular-season finale, the Hawks lost 98-93 in double overtime to the Bonnies.
"We've got good players. We have hard-nosed players, players that play with confidence and they trust each other and I think that's how you win games at this level," Schmidt said. "We've been in a lot of tight games, especially early on when we lost and I think our guys learned from that, gained some experience and you learn how to win by winning."
On St. Joe's next possession, the Hawks were down 70-68. Carl Jones, who had been the Hawks' star on the day with 24 points, got the ball. He dribbled around, went toward the basket and his jump shot ran right into Nicholson.
Nicholson, a 6-foot-9 center, had his fourth block of the day with just one second left. The block sealed the win.
"We were looking for the same play that we had run the sometime before," Martelli said. "We didn't go as quick as I wanted us to go, and everything in this offense was the next pass, we had to make the next pass in this game. For the most part, we did do that and those last two possessions it didn't go our way."
For Nicholson, the reason for his two big, late defensive plays was simple. He mentioned the airball he had shot between the two St. Joe possessions and needed to make up for it.
But it was more than that.
"It's tournament play so you've got to play every possession like it's your last," Nicholson said.
This is a new territory for these Bonnies. The team hadn't been to the semifinals since 2000, when St. Bonaventure lost to Temple in the final.
When Schmidt took over the program before the 2007-08 season, St. Bonaventure was still reeling from NCAA sanctions and he had just three players on scholarship that season.
The goal was to get better and better each year.
"From three scholarship guys five years ago to where the program was dead," Schmidt said. "We worked hard to play and we did a tremendous job. If somebody would have said we were going to be in the semifinals of the Atlantic 10 tournament, people would have laughed at us, but because of the work our players have put in and what my staff has done, we're here and hopefully we can play well (today)."
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SAINT JOSEPH'S (20-13) Totals 23-53 13-18 68.
ST. BONAVENTURE (18-11)Totals 27-50 16-23 71.
Halftime3-Point Goals-Fouled Out-Rebounds-Assists-Total Fouls-TechnicalA-