An already inexperienced St. Joe's basketball team got even younger on Monday when head coach Phil Martelli announced that junior forward James Demery would be sidelined for a few weeks with a stress fracture in the fourth metatarsal of his left foot (see story).
But despite losing one of their three returning players from last year's team, the Hawks handled business like that of a veteran team against Columbia on Monday night.
St. Joe's raced out to a commanding early lead, took a 23-point advantage into the half and kept Columbia at arm's length the rest of the way en route to an 85-65 win (see Instant Replay).
"I'll be honest with you, I was a little bit taken back with the starting lineup cause I went, 'Holy mackerel, there's two sophomores and two freshmen,'" Martelli said. "But I'm not blinking, like, win was the expectation. Win was the need, not the want. We didn't want to win tonight, we needed to win. And when you're looking out you're saying, 'My god, these guys are so young and they haven't been through everything yet.'
"How we're gonna deal with James' absence going forward? It's to be worked out. This is going be a game-by-game thing now without James. We lose his rebounding and his defense. But, first thing's first, his health is more important than anything else."
St. Joe's dynamic starting backcourt was explosive on the offensive end of the court for the second time in as many games. Lamarr Kimble led the way with a career-high 19 points and eight assists, both team highs. Shavar Newkirk also had an impressive showing, finishing with 17 points and four assists.
But while the Hawks' backcourt duo shouldered the brunt of the load on offense, the most noteworthy performance of the night came from freshman forward Charlie Brown.
After posting just five points on six shot attempts in his collegiate debut, Brown erupted for 15 points on 6 of 10 shooting from the field, mixing in both pull-up and spot-up jumpers. He also pulled down five rebounds and drilled three of the Hawks' seven triples on the night.
On the same day that St. Joe's lost its top returning scorer from last year, Brown's emergence on offense was an encouraging sign for the Hawks.
"[Charlie] was a big lift," Newkirk said. "First game, I guess it was nervousness, so he didn't play as everyone expected. He really picked it up this game."
Brown's night didn't get off to a positive start either. Just three minutes into the game, he was pulled for not being active enough and missing an assignment on defense, according to Martelli.
But Brown checked back in a few minutes later with St. Joe's leading 11-6 and played a substantial role in the Hawks' offensive explosion that put the game away early. The Philadelphia native hit five of his next eight shots, including two from beyond the arc, for 12 points during a 27-12 run by the Hawks.
"[Charlie's] like these wings that Philadelphia has lived with," Martelli said. "He's not like DeAndre' (Bembry) as a wing, but he's got a little bit of Delonte (West) in that he can really raise up on you quickly. I don't want to be sacrilegious or jinx this kid. He's gonna make a hard run here at some scoring records, in my opinion. He just has to be older tomorrow and understand it's not about one way here."
For an offense that is highly predicated off of dribble penetration from its pair of combo guards, Brown's shooting prowess has gravity and makes life on Kimble and Newkirk a lot easier.
"He spreads the court out," Newkirk said. "He's an excellent jump shooter and he just opens up driving lanes for me and Lamarr.”
Brown wasn't the only depth player to contribute in the first game of Demery's absence. Chris Clover and Brendan Casper came off the bench to combine for 18 points.
As St. Joe's gets set to move on to the Paradise Jam tournament on Nov. 18 — which includes the likes of No. 22 Creighton — the Hawks’ depth and inexperience is likely to be tested sooner rather than later.
But, through two games, so far, so good.
“I think we’re getting better over the days. … I like the fact that we’re scoring," Martelli said. "I didn’t anticipate that we would score this well, but when we hit a bump, that’s what I want to see, to see how much we grow."