Sunday, February 22, 2004

Hawks 76, Owls 53 | Early in the second half of Saint Joseph's game with Temple at the Palestra yesterday, a couple of Owl fans behind us began saying to each other, "They afraid to go inside!" These guys were referring to the Hawks' being content to play bombs-away from the outside, as is their style. Sure, occasionally the ball would find its way inside to center Dwayne Jones, or Delonte West would go slashing through the lane, but more often than not St. Joe's whipped the ball around the perimeter until it found an open guy, who'd launch a usually successful three-point attempt. Then the Hawks would D it up with their usual manic intensity, forcing a bad shot or a turnover, and point guard extraordinaire Jameer Nelson would bring the ball back up the court and proceed to run the offense with the virtuosity and precision of a Swiss watchmaker.

That formula -- ferocious defense, deadly outside shooting, and an unflappable demeanor -- has thus far spelled an undefeated season and a No. 2 ranking in the national polls for the Hawks. So there was really no reason to try to force the basketball inside. Afraid? Maybe, but only in the sense that Leonardo was afraid to paint in watercolors. When you find something that works, you stick with it.

The result yesterday was a 23-point pasting of the Owls, who played gamely but were completely overmatched. Saint Joseph's simply is operating at a different level than the rest of the Atlantic 10 Conference during this wonderful, special season. Besides their considerable physical skills, the Hawks are playing with extraordinary basketball sense and poise. Earlier in the week, Temple assistant coach Mark Macon, a star in his playing days, had inexplicably talked trash about St. Joe's and West; yesterday, West let his play do the talking in response.

By far the best part of being at the Palestra for yesterday's contest was the company -- I had the great fortune to be joined by my wife, my brothers (Boats Against the Current and There It Is), and their significant others (one wife, one girlfriend). Four rows off the baseline, we watched one of the nation's finest teams perform at a level equal to that of the game's most stories programs. The guys behind us were impressed that Temple was able to hang on for the first 10 minutes or so, but by halftime this one was over, one more victory in a season bursting with them. Hoopheads will be talking about the 2004 Hawks for decades to come, and for good reason. This is a team for the ages, and I feel fortunate to have been able to see them live so much, and to have the missus, my brothers, and their ladies join us yesterday.


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