Shavar Newkirk

Freshman Taylor Funk stars in St. Joe's win over Princeton

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Freshman Taylor Funk stars in St. Joe's win over Princeton

BOX SCORE

Freshman Taylor Funk hit five 3-pointers and finished with a career-high 23 points to lead Saint Joseph's to a 71-58 win over Princeton on Saturday night.

Funk made 7 of 8 from the field and hit 4 of 4 from the free throw line. James Demery had 13 points, Shavar Newkirk scored 11 and Anthony Longpre' added 10 points for Saint Joe's (2-1).

Funk made back-to-back 3-pointers and had 10 points during a 14-2 run that gave the Hawks a 59-50 lead with six minutes to go. Mike LeBlanc hit a 3 to pull Princeton within seven points with 3:37 left, but Funk answered with a 3-pointer and Saint Joe's led by double figures the rest of the way.

Devin Cannady led Princeton (0-3) with 22 points, including six 3-pointers. Amir Bell added 15 points and Myles Stephens had 13 with eight rebounds.

Funk has back-to-back 20-plus point games and has 61 points through his first three games, the second most in school history behind Bernard Blunt's 67 points in the 1990-91 season.

The Tigers led for all but 90 seconds in the first half, but hit just 3-of-15 second-half 3-pointers.

Healthy Saint Joseph's poised for NCAA Tournament return

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Healthy Saint Joseph's poised for NCAA Tournament return

How does a team that went 11-20 overall and 4-14 in the conference head into the following season with high expectations and a predicted third-place finish in the always-competitive Atlantic 10?

That’s what happens when just about all of your best players are returning from injuries that derailed your 2016-17 campaign but bring great hope and promise for a new season.

“We had the season that we had, and there’s no excuses for it,” longtime Saint Joseph’s head coach Phil Martelli said. “It’s what we had. We had six games that we lost in the last minute-and-a-half or two minutes. We had games that we couldn’t lose — like, if you looked at the script, you’d say that we had to win that game, and we didn’t win them.

“To this group’s credit, every one of them is a little bit better than they were at the end of last year. … There’s definitely a hunger in all of us, starting last spring, to get it right.”

Martelli may say there were no excuses, as coaches tend to do, but the truth is you can easily find a lot of them. Starting with the season-ending injury to Pierfrancesco “Checco” Oliva in the preseason, the Hawks seemed to be almost cursed all year as star guards Shavar Newkirk and Lamarr “Fresh” Kimble were also lost for the season, while forward James Demery missed 10 games.

Newkirk, who was averaging over 20 points per game before he went down with a torn ACL, is questionable to start in Saturday’s season-opening game at Toledo as he just returned to practice following a long rehab stint.

But when he does return, he should once again be one of the top guards in the conference and perhaps even form one of the country’s best backcourts with Kimble.

“One of the beautiful things is that [last] Tuesday, he fell down,” Martelli said. “He hit the floor, and everybody in the gym sucked the air in, and he got up, and everybody breathed. And I said, ‘Great, we’re on, so now I can bark at you about not going to the right position or the right angle or whatever it would be.’ 

“I don’t know what he’ll look like, but he’s a senior, he’s an A-10 champion, and he started in this league. He knows what this is about, so I’m anxious to see more.”

Before their injuries, Newkirk and Kimble meshed well in the Hawks’ backcourt even though both are natural point guards. The year before that, they formed a potent platoon to help a team led by DeAndre’ Bembry and Isaiah Miles to an A-10 title, an NCAA Tournament win and a near-upset of top-seeded Oregon in the second round of the Big Dance.

It’s fair to say, then, that both have plenty of experience — a point made clear when Kimble, a junior from Philly who fractured his foot last February, was selected as captain for the second straight year.

“It speaks volumes about his teammates,” Martelli said. “Obviously Fresh got the honor of being elected captain two years in a row, but it’s a players’ decision. To me, being a captain is really simple. The captain can walk up to you and tell you that your locker room is a mess, or that's not how we act on campus, or we don't travel in a certain way. The captain has to take care of how we are representing this program and this university, and the players decided for the second year in a row that Fresh Kimble would be the guy that they would listen to.”

Kimble may have an important role early in the season as Newkirk returns to full strength and Charlie Brown misses a little time after fracturing his wrist last month. 

Another Philly native, Brown burst onto the scene as a freshman last year, averaging 12.8 points and 5.0 rebounds per game while sporting some big yellow hair. He’s since gotten a haircut but will look to have the same kind of impact as a sophomore.

“What I asked him to do was to look more like a basketball player, which he does,” Martelli said. “He has put in time in the weight room. I wanted him to be a more committed defender, and he has been. And now what we’re asking for him is health. And then the biggest thing for Charlie Brown is all of the noise. All of the noise must dissipate. He must be able to listen to one voice. Everyone wants to talk to him about being the next [to the NBA]. That's not how it works. He hasn't been told that 10 NBA teams have been through here this preseason. Ten. But they talked to me about what's it going to be down the line.

“He is a beautiful human being,” Martelli added. “He did something the other day that puts him on the top layer of the people I've ever coached. We had a scrimmage and the other team left 150 cups on the floor. One of the workers came out, and Charlie looked at the guy and asked if he was the one responsible to clean them up. The guy said that he was, and Charlie said, ‘Let me help you.’ There's no entitlement. That's a beautiful human being, and I only want the ultimate of successes for him.”

If Brown can return quickly, and the rest of the Hawks manage to stay healthy, will this St. Joe’s team look more like the A-10 champs from two years ago than the team with the losing record last year?

“Everyone’s gonna fit like puzzle pieces,” Demery predicted. “And we’re gonna try to accomplish something big.”

SAINT JOSEPH’S AT A GLANCE

Head coach
Phil Martelli, 23rd year

Last year
11-20, 4-15 Atlantic 10

Top returners
• Lamarr Kimble (junior guard) 
• Shavar Newkirk (senior guard) 
• James Demery (senior forward) 
• Charlie Brown (sophomore forward)

Key losses
None

Impact newcomers
• Taylor Funk (freshman forward) 
• Anthony Longpre (freshman forward)

Games to watch
• Nov. 18 vs. Princeton
• Dec. 2 vs. Villanova
• Jan. 6 vs. St. Bonaventure
• Jan. 27 at Penn
• Feb. 27 at Rhode Island 
• March 3 vs. La Salle

Best-case scenario
Everyone stays healthy, the freshmen emerge as key contributors off the bench, and the Hawks win the Atlantic 10 as well as an NCAA tourney game for the second time in three years.

Worst-case scenario
Injuries remain a problem, the Hawks aren’t able to overcome their rebounding woes, and they miss the postseason entirely.

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.”