SPOKANE, Washington: In a game that wasn’t determined until after even after the last play was over, a 78-76 win that goes straight into St. Joseph’s lore, it started with DeAndre’ Bembry, as always. Late Friday night, the Hawks walked out for the center tip for the NCAA West Regional first-rounder against Cincinnati. Their star player tucked in his shorts and took his place ready to tip it, a little smile on his face.
How many teams in this NCAA tournament send a wing player out to take the opening tip? How many have a Bembry?
“A couple of times, especially when it’s big guys, I’m like, ‘You know I’m going to get this — just don’t jump,’” Bembry had said on Thursday.
The big guys think they’ve heard him wrong.
“I’m serious,” Bembry would tell them, relating it with a belly laugh.
Where else do you see the guy who jumps center immediately switch to covering the opposing point guard? Cincinnati’s Troy Caupain scored 37 points in his last game, so Bembry on him wasn’t a huge surprise.
The first half was one of those times when Bembry just transcended the whole enterprise. The only knock you can usually find about the 6-foot-6 junior is his shooting. Not this night. He hit threes, including once as a Bearcats defender jumped into him. One time, he saw a baseline path to the hoop seemingly before he got the ball. The result was a highlight dunk.
Right after, a Cincinnati guard and drove and seemed to have an open path, except Bembry contorted his body away from the game and still blocked the shot into the backboard.
The Hawks needed every one of Bembry’s 20 first-half points (on 7 of 9 shooting) since that only meant a 41-40 lead, with the Bearcats more jumpers than usual and also finding some inside buckets, shooting 56 percent overall. He finished the night with 25.
Some guys as smooth as Bembry, you don’t really see all the work. With Bembry, you see it all. You see his brain working. The Hawks won their first NCAA tournament since the 2003-04 season because they have a player who would have fit right in with those earlier guys, including the best of them.
In the second half, the Hawks built a quick 12-point lead, then it began shrinking. Aaron Brown drove into traffic and Bembry gave a little shriek, wanting a foul call. With six minutes left, the lead was all gone. The Bearcats nailed another jumper for the lead, five minutes to go.
The Hawks looked in serious trouble when Bembry lost a grip on the ball and had to use every inch of his wing span to save the ball from landing on the St. Joe’s bench. His saving pass rotated back to him for shot in traffic. Then he got two rebounds, and found Brown for a big hoop, pushing St. Joe’s up, 75-71, with two minutes left.
But the Bearcats showed their mettle. This was simply a first-rate example of March Madness high performance, both sides. Last shot to the Hawks, down one, 14.7 seconds left. Bembry got the ball to Isaiah Miles and he hit a huge jumper.
At the other end, you saw it if you stayed up: Cincinnati’s Octavius Ellis rising for a dunk, the game-winner, initially called good. But wait … a tenth of a second too late. Replays showed it. The building exploded.
Back to Bembry … I mentioned to Martelli on Thursday that he was always talking about Bembry’s intangibles, his leadership. What is Bembry best at on the court?
“He gives us a place to put the ball, and I think that a basketball decision is going to be made when he gets the ball,” Martelli said. “The ball’s not going to go someplace that you don’t expect it. His turnovers could come down, but it’s just the fact that his basketball IQ is really up to the next level, where he’ll eventually end up.”
As for that center-tip comment about getting inside big guys’ heads, often enough Bembry did get over the top of them. Not every time, obviously. The Hawks ended up with the ball a dozen times this season off opening tips. (He didn’t get to the ball Friday, but Miles jumped in and grabbed the Bearcats’ back tip).
“He’s the quickest leaper on the team,” Martelli explained of his preseason decision to go with Bembry. “That was it. When I looked around, I said we are playing small, what gives us a chance to get this?”
This is really a window into what Bembry provided the Hawks these last three seasons. He has video-game quickness. Earlier this season, there was a game when Bembry, with the ball on the right wing, passed it to a teammate at the top of the key. The teammate took the shot and missed. Bembry was there grabbing the rebound — to the left of the hoop. How did that happen?
As an NBA prospect, teams will have to figure out what Bembry’s best position is, since he’s not usually a pure shooter and his handle sometimes get loose. But his quickness gets put to use as a blanketing on-ball defender, in addition to that vision for the game Martelli describes. Sometimes, his skying rebounds look like highlights.
Martelli likes that current NBA rules allow Bembry to go to the NBA combine and get informed opinions about where he stands, with the possibility of pulling out if he doesn’t like what he hears.
“Not some street guy, not some runner for an agent, not the Internet, not the college coach, is going to tell him, this is what you should do,” Martelli said. “And then he and his mother and his grandfather will make a very intelligent decision about his future. He’s going to be an NBA player. But this new rule is tailor-made for DeAndre’.”
At halftime, they blasted the halftime show into Spokane Arena with Charles Barkley and the crew. It was Clark Kellogg who mentioned, “Sometimes it comes down to who has the best player on the floor, and tonight it looks like DeAndre’ Bembry.”