Before its season opener, Saint Joseph’s celebrated its past.
Turns out, the Hawks’ future could be pretty good too.
Led by a career-high 28 points from junior Shavar Newkirk — one of only three returning regulars from last year’s Atlantic 10 championship squad — St. Joe’s earned a 77-76 win over Toledo to kick off its 2016-17 campaign Saturday night at Hagan Arena.
Lamarr Kimble and James Demery, the other two returners, added 16 and 11 points, respectively. Kimble’s 16 was also a career high as the Hawks look to find new stars to keep their program on top.
“College is about waiting your turn,” Newkirk said. “We basically waited our turn. We’re ready for it.”
The backcourt partnership between Newkirk and Kimble was perhaps the most promising development of Saturday’s opener. Because they’re both natural point guards, the two rarely played on the court at the same time last season, instead splitting time evenly.
But knowing he needed to rely on them both, Martelli decided over the summer the two would start together — and they rewarded that decision with a combined 44 points, six assists and nine rebounds in the opener. They also combined to shoot a healthy 15 for 28 from the floor.
“When I know I have another point guard on the floor, it relieves pressure off me,” Newkirk said. “I don’t have to run the team as much.”
“We’re like brothers out there,” Kimble added. “It definitely was good playing with him. I picked my spots off him and he had it going.”
Earlier in the night, Kimble hugged the A-10 championship trophy as St. Joe’s commemorated the 2015-16 campaign in which the Hawks won 28 games, including victories in the Atlantic 10 championship over VCU and a first-round NCAA Tournament contest over Cincinnati.
A championship banner was also unveiled and a highlights video was shown, before three departed players from last year’s team — Aaron Brown, Papa Ndao and Kyle Molock — posed for a photo with the official game ball. DeAndre' Bembry and Isaiah Miles, the two stars of the team now playing professionally, both made video messages that were played during the first half.
“It was nice to see another banner hanging up there,” head coach Phil Martelli said, “and now getting to work on hopefully getting another one.”
The loss of Bembry, Miles, Brown and Ndao — who accounted for 65 percent of their scoring last year — was felt early on as this year’s young Hawks squad fell behind by eight a little more than five minutes into the contest.
But the Hawks got the crowd roaring right before halftime on a three-pointer from promising freshman Charlie Brown followed by a game-tying, coast-to-coast dunk from Demery.
The Rockets ended up taking a 41-40 lead into halftime, spurred by 46.4 percent shooting. But Newkirk began to take over in the second half, scoring seven straight points for his team to put St. Joe’s up 55-54. Kimble followed with an acrobatic three-point play with 11:16 left to give the Hawks a four-point lead — their biggest of the night until the final minute.
“We’re definitely maturing fast as a team,” Kimble said. “We’ve got a lot of young players but you definitely saw that we took some punches and we were able to keep grinding the game down.”
St. Joe’s couldn’t stretch its advantage as the two teams traded leads the rest of the way — remarkably, there were 25 total lead changes in the second half — but went up for good on a Markell Lodge bucket with 1:42 left. A clutch Newkirk jumper gave the Hawks a 74-71 lead with 46.7 seconds left and, after a big defensive stop, two Newkirk free throws with 25.4 seconds remaining helped ice the win.
“I felt like in an odd way this was a really enjoyable game to be a part of because the lead was changing, we had to make some calls, we had to make some adjustments,” said Martelli, who began his 22nd season at the Hawks’ helm. “I like that. I’m fine with it.”
What turned out to be the difference in the final two minutes as St. Joe’s finally stopped the seesaw and pulled away, with Toledo only pulling back to within one with a meaningless three at the buzzer?
“Having two point guards on the floor,” Newkirk responded simply.
And now the Hawks hope their new backcourt will continue to grow when St. Joe’s returns to action Monday with a home game vs. Columbia before flying out to St. Thomas for the Paradise Jam.
“It’s a long season,” Newkirk said. “We have to come back Monday and do it again.”