St. Joseph’s recalls run to Elite Eight in NCAA Tournament

Before Michigan’s football game on Saturday, Phil Martelli walked into a local hotel and felt someone looking at him. As the associate head coach of the Wolverines men’s basketball team, that wasn’t unusual, but when the man approached him, it had nothing to do with Michigan.

“He said, ‘That ‘03-’04 team played the game and seemed to enjoy the game,’” Martelli recalled early Sunday evening. “And I said, ‘Thank you.’ I said, ‘That’s a message from above that this weekend is going to be great.’”

The team the man referenced was the legendary St. Joseph’s 2003-04 Elite Eight squad that, coached by Martelli, went a perfect 27-0 during the regular season and, at one point, was the No. 1 team in the country. And the weekend Martelli was talking about was the 20th-anniversary celebration of that very team, which took place Sunday at Llanerch Country Club.

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Martellli and his wife, Judy, were responsible for putting the event together. The reunion consisted of coaches, players, media, support staff, and others from the iconic St. Joe’s team, with about 60 people in attendance. Players traveled from all over, with Artur Surov coming from Finland and others making the trip from places like California and Chicago.

It was the first formal celebration, but it certainly won’t be the last.

“The build-up and anticipation has been really emotional, really emotional,” Martelli, the 2003-04 Naismith College Coach of the Year, said. “You can feel how excited this is. … It’s gonna be very special. And will we be back for 21? No, we won’t be back for 21. But you be booked, we’ll be back for 25.”

In attendance on Sunday was Jameer Nelson, the Hawks’ star that year. In 2003-04, the 6-foot guard from Chester averaged 20.6 points, 5.3 assists, and 4.7 rebounds on his way to being named the national college player of the year.

While Nelson undoubtedly was the guy for the Hawks, he wasn’t surrounded by nobodies. The team’s second-leading scorer was Delonte West, who went on to have an eight-year NBA career, and Pat Carroll, who was third on the team in scoring, was Atlantic 10 Player of the Year the next season.

“I just think everybody played a part. Everybody had a great role; everybody starred in their role,” Nelson said Sunday. “We weren’t the strongest, the fastest, the most athletic team, but we really liked each other. We enjoyed playing alongside one another. The one thing was, we just competed. We competed our tails off and had fun.

“I just remember everybody getting behind us in the community and cheering us on. I remember bus loads of people following us all around the country … I’m not sure I’ve had that much fun playing a sport since.”

» READ MORE: How Jameer Nelson became a Philly sports icon

Following the regular season, the Hawks played Xavier in the quarterfinals of the A-10 tournament, losing by 20. St. Joe’s still was given a No. 1 seed and bounced back from the loss with three consecutive wins in the NCAA Tournament, but Oklahoma State eventually beat them, 64-62, for a trip to the Final Four.

It was the end for the greatest St. Joe’s team ever, and, if you ask Martelli, one of the best teams to ever come through the area.

“I’m never shy about this, but there are great teams in Philadelphia,” Martelli said. “The Temple teams, national championship teams at Villanova. This team was the equal of any team, without a championship, without an Atlantic 10 championship. The way they played and the way they handled it. Because it was an embrace. Not just of a school community. The Delaware Valley, their families, like everybody was in on this.”

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“What this team did, and I’ve had others do this, is this team reached the zenith of their abilities, and, looking at myself in the way they were coached, they had nothing left. They had nothing left,” Martelli added. “So when people say, ‘Are you disappointed that you didn’t go to the Final Four?’ Yeah, I’m devastated. But, I always think the measure of a coach is the day after their last game. And if you say they gave me everything that they had, and I gave them everything that I had, I could walk away with saying that, for myself, personally, [it was the] best team I’ve ever coached? Yes.”

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