NEW YORK - Langston Galloway's legs should have been aching after playing three games in three days and every minute against VCU's press.
The only thing the Saint Joseph's senior could feel was how close he was to winning an Atlantic 10 tournament championship. Galloway stepped back to hit yet another huge 3-pointer, giving the Hawks the lead for good in their 65-61 win over the 23rd-ranked Rams in Sunday's final.
Fourth-seeded Saint Joseph's (24-9) arrived in Brooklyn on the NCAA tournament bubble. The Hawks all but clinched an at-large berth with a victory over fellow bubble team Dayton in Friday's quarterfinals on Galloway's go-ahead 3 with 17.9 seconds left. Then they made that moot by capturing the conference's automatic bid for the first time since 1997.
The Hawks will face Connecticut in the first round of the NCAA tournament (story on D3).
Galloway scored 19 points Sunday and broke a 54-54 tie with a 3 with more than two minutes left.
He and Halil Kanacevic played all 40 minutes against the second-seeded Rams' frenetic defense.
"Those guys are tough guys," VCU coach Shaka Smart said. "As seniors, they stepped up."
Kanacevic won MVP honors after setting a tournament record with 43 rebounds in three games.
"We could go play another 40 if I got to feel this way again," Kanacevic said after cutting down the nets.
All five St. Joe's starters played at least 37 minutes - including the entire second half. Coach Phil Martelli made a note to himself before the game to get his subs some time in the first, but when they struggled in brief action, he knew riding his regulars gave Saint Joseph's its best chance to win a championship.
It helps that the media timeouts in the tournament seem to last forever, offering players some extra rest - Martelli quipped Saturday that "I got engaged in less time."
Ronald Roberts, the Hawks' third senior starter, had 15 points on 6-of-6 shooting and 11 rebounds.
The Rams (26-8) have reached the A-10 tourney finals in both years in the league, losing each time. Rob Brandenberg led VCU with 18 points, but Galloway got just enough separation on him to make the go-ahead 3. Galloway used his forearm to create some space on the shot against Dayton; this time, he simply faked a drive and stepped back.
"I didn't get close to pushing off so nobody would disagree with that," he said with a grin.
Briante Weber missed a 3 on the other end, and the Hawks broke down the Rams' pressure for Roberts' dunk on a pass from DeAndre Bembry for a 59-54 lead.
Bembry, a freshman, had a brilliant defensive game and a horrific offensive showing in Saturday's semifinals. But against VCU's "Havoc" full-court press, he kept his poise, scoring 13 points with eight assists and just two turnovers.
The Rams were without A-10 sixth man of the year Melvin Johnson, who hurt his left knee Saturday and is scheduled for an MRI back in Richmond on Monday. They missed his 3-point shooting, making just 5 of 19 from beyond the arc. And they couldn't finish several high-percentage attempts much closer to the rim, including a dunk and layup in transition.
"We didn't put enough of them away when we had good looks," Smart said.
Kanacevic, a forward from nearby Staten Island, had 11 points, 14 rebounds, four assists and two blocks. Earlier in his career, he kept racking up technical fouls, but he's channeled that fire into a leadership role.
"I think he's a pain in the neck - I'm glad he's my pain," Martelli said.
For all of the Hawks' success in 19 seasons under Martelli, he had won only one A-10 tourney title before Sunday, and that came 17 years ago. But he knew this would be a special group last summer, when the team gathered before a four-game tour of Italy.
Martelli pulled a "Pope-blessed" ring from his pocket, a souvenir of that trip and his good luck charm on the sideline. It was obvious when he observed his players off the court in Rome, the coach said, that they had "championship character."