Back from a lost season, Oliva could be X-factor for St. Joe's

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Back from a lost season, Oliva could be X-factor for St. Joe's

The Saint Joseph’s men’s basketball team has had to deal with a nasty case of the injury bug as standouts Shavar Newkirk, Lamarr Kimble and James Demery all missed extended time last season and rising star Charlie Brown broke his wrist this preseason.

But with most of the injury talk on Hawk Hill centered around those guys, some might forget that another key player was out for the entire 2016-17 season: Pierfrancesco Oliva.

Better known as “Checco,” the Italian-born forward was a freshman starter on the Hawks’ 2015-16 A-10 championship team before having surgery last June to repair a chronic knee condition. Now, the redshirt sophomore could be the X-factor on a St. Joe’s squad that, if healthy, can do some serious damage in the Atlantic 10 and beyond.

“Checco is a brilliant offensive mind,” St. Joe’s head coach Phil Martelli said from the team’s media day Thursday. “He has to work on putting the ball in the basket, but he just seems a little bit older. He’s only a junior but he just has an older view of the game. And there’s experience there. He started on an Atlantic 10 champion team, and he played 14 minutes in two NCAA games. So he gets it.”

Oliva agrees that he can add veteran leadership to the squad — an exciting prospect for Hawks fans considering he still has three more years of college eligibility remaining.

“It seems weird to say since I only played one year but I think I can bring a lot of experience,” he said. “I played with guys like DeAndre' Bembry and Isaiah Miles, who are playing at a high level right now. We had that winning mentality and that’s what we need this year in order to be successful.”

Everything was indeed great for Oliva as a freshman after he made St. Joe’s his college choice after coming to New Jersey from Italy and starring for Bergen Catholic. He started 30 games in a loaded lineup that featured Bembry and Miles, averaging 4.0 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game.

Things weren’t as good a couple of months after St. Joe’s took top-seeded Oregon down to the wire in the second round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament, as Oliva could barely get out of bed for about four months during a very “slow process for rehab” over the summer.

But during that time, he became a student of the game by watching a lot of basketball, including many St. Joe’s games. And he read the motivational book Energy Bus in an attempt to stay positive.

Now, he feels better both physically and mentally as he prepares for the 2017-18 season, which begins for the Hawks at Toledo next Saturday.

“He is somewhat like a kid on Christmas, that he's back out here,” Martelli said. “He really gets bothered if someone asks him how he feels or if he wants to take a set off or anything like that. He's a really good basketball player, and it's going to help the two big young guys. They are going to learn that this is the way you can play as a multiple-skills forward.”

Martelli added that practices can be interesting with Oliva because he “can’t say anything to him without him responding to me — and I kind of like that.” For Oliva, it’s important to have that kind of open dialogue, even if it’s not something other players are used to seeing.

“He considers me a high IQ player and I consider myself a high IQ player,” Oliva said. “I don’t necessarily agree with everything he has to say. And when I don’t agree, then I ask him and see what he’s saying. I’m not the kind of person who just follows orders. I’ve never been like that when it comes to basketball.”

But the 6-foot-8 forward added he has a “good bond” with Martelli. And he has an equally good relationship with his teammates, many of whom refer to him as an “Italian from the Philly hood” because sometimes he’ll say something in slang and “they’ll start laughing.”

Being on the court with their Italian teammate is just as much fun.

“With Checco, I call him ‘Hawk Eyes’ because he sees everything,” Demery said. “You think he doesn’t see you but he does. I said, ‘You saw me on that play?’ and he’s like, ‘I got you, bro. I see you. Just be ready.’”

Now, a healthy Oliva and the rest of his teammates are ready for a big season.

“I think we can surprise a lot of people,” he said. “We’ve been in the gym together since the summer and we know what we can do. But it’s easy to talk. We’re gonna be able to show it in a week.”

St. Joe's can't quite pull off upset in Atlantic 10 semis

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St. Joe's can't quite pull off upset in Atlantic 10 semis


WASHINGTON — Andre Berry scored 18 points, Fatts Russell made two crucial 3-pointers in the final six minutes and No. 25 Rhode Island rallied past Saint Joseph's 90-87 on Saturday in the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament semifinals.

The Rams (25-6) are the first No. 1 seed in the Atlantic 10 to reach the conference championship game since Saint Louis in 2013.

Jeff Dowtin added 16 points and 10 assists for Rhode Island, Russell scored 14 points and E.C. Matthews had 11 of his 14 points in the second half for the defending tournament champions.

Shavar Newkirk had 18 points, eight rebounds and six assists for the fourth-seeded Hawks (16-16), who drubbed Rhode Island 78-48 last week. Saint Joseph's appeared poised to deliver another upset while trying to extend its season, building an 11-point lead early in the second half.

Cyril Langevine gave Rhode Island its first lead at 73-71 when he completed a 3-point play with 6:16 remaining. After Newkirk tied it with a basket on the next possession, Russell connected on a 3 to give the Rams the lead for good.

Russell had another 3 with 4:29 to go, and Jared Terrell added a 3 off an offensive rebound and kickout on the Rams' next possession to make it 82-75. The Hawks never cut the deficit to fewer than two and missed out on a chance to tie when Taylor Funk traveled near midcourt with 0.5 seconds left.

Big Picture
Rhode Island: After dropping three of their last five regular-season games, the Rams manufactured tight victories over VCU and Saint Joseph's to reach their second consecutive Atlantic 10 title game.

Saint Joseph's: The Hawks won seven of eight before Saturday's loss and started only one senior in the conference tournament. They're poised to contend in the Atlantic 10 again next season.

Up Next 
Rhode Island: The Rams will meet either second-seeded St. Bonaventure or third-seeded Davidson in Sunday's title game. Rhode Island managed a season split with both teams.

Saint Joseph's: The Hawks' season is likely finished.

St. Joe's steamrolls George Mason in A-10 tourney

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St. Joe's steamrolls George Mason in A-10 tourney


WASHINGTON -- Nick Robinson led a balanced attack with 14 points, Taylor Funk had a double-double and fourth-seeded Saint Joseph's pulled away for a 68-49 win over fifth-seeded George Mason on Friday in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament.

Funk had 12 points and 10 rebounds, James Demery had 12 points off the bench and Shavar Newkirk added 13 points for the Hawks (16-15), who face top-seeded and 25th ranked Rhode Island in the semifinals.

Saint Joseph's worked a 26-25 halftime lead up to 16 points midway through the second half but the Patriots (16-17), who swept the regulation-season series by a total of five points, had a 9-0 run to get within single digits with five minutes to go. In the last four minutes the Hawks were 9 of 10 from the foul line, closing with a 16-6 run.

Jaire Grayer had 12 points and 13 rebounds for George Mason, which went 2 of 25 from distance and shot less than 30 percent overall.