As last season ended, St. Joseph's basketball coach Phil Martelli, remarking about the uncertainty of this season, mentioned Pierfrancesco "Checco" Oliva, wondering who could remember what kind of game Oliva had, after he sat out his sophomore season with a chronic knee condition.
His game? Still evolving, in all sorts of interesting ways. This season, the 6-foot-8 forward from Italy (via Bergen Catholic, N.J.) has been second on the Hawks in assists, consistently finding teammates from interesting angles.
On Saturday, Oliva took a new tack, becoming a go-to offensive force, combining with senior James Demery to lead St. Joe's past Fordham, 68-46, at Hagan Arena. Oliva had a career-high 22 points, and Demery had 25, tying his season high, as the Hawks improved to 9-9, 4-3 in the Atlantic Ten. Fordham fell to 6-13 and 1-6.
After going scoreless and taking only two shots but grabbing 17 rebounds against Dayton, Oliva had 10 points in the first 10 minutes against Fordham. That was it until halftime — but Oliva picked it up after the break. The hosts pulled ahead as Oliva passed his career high of 16 points and reached 21 with more than nine minutes left.
"Against Dayton, they were guarding me really close, even though my shooting percentage is not really good,'' Oliva said. "Today, I just had a lot of space."
It did not shock Oliva that Martelli noticed his five turnovers on the stat sheet, while the coach pointed out that St. Joe's had on;y seven turnovers overall.
"I know — when I saw the stats, it's not me,'' Oliva said. "At the same time, when I had the ball in my hands so much, I'm definitely not used to it. I forced some plays in the heat of the game."
He mentioned the passes he shouldn't have tried.
"I was trying to make the one play that makes everybody say, 'Oh, wow,' " Oliva said. "I'm not usually like that. I try to make consistent passes."
Martelli said that if St. Joe's had all of its offensive weapons healthy, Oliva's passing would be an even bigger weapon. The big key for Oliva's development might be at the defensive end. If he can handle inside assignments, it would change a lot of things for St. Joe's.