NEW YORK (Ticker) -- This is what Jameer Nelson envisioned when he opted to return for his senior year at St. Joseph's.
Nelson made his Madison Square Garden debut a memorable one with 20 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds as the 18th-ranked Hawks posted a 73-66 victory over No. 12 Gonzaga at the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.
Nelson decided to come back to St. Joseph's despite a strong performance at the NBA's pre-draft camp in June in Chicago. The decision thrilled the Hawks' faithful and Nelson gave them some more thrills in the season opener.
"He's the best in America because he leads and he believes that the reason you play basketball is for your team to win," Hawks coach Phil Martelli said.
Nelson outshined fellow Wooden Award nominee Blake Stepp of Gonzaga by completely controlling the action. Nelson's penetration led to open looks on the perimeter for the Hawks and Delonte West and Tyrone Barley took advantage by drilling four 3-pointers.
"I pretty much wanted to be a kid again coming back," Nelson said. "When I play basketball, I just come out and have fun. If I'm having fun, that means we're winning."
West scored 16 points and Barley and Pat Carroll each added 12. St. Joseph's finished 12-of-25 from the arc.
"For a guy in his position with so much hype, it would be easy for him to be about himself," West said. "He's not one of those types of players or point guards. He's one of those guys who wants to get his team involved. I think that trickles down from the No. 1 player all the way down to the No. 15 player."
The Hawks erased an eight-point deficit with a 19-2 run bridging both halves that featured eight points from Carroll. Nelson had a pair of baskets and two assists in the run which left St. Joseph's with a 49-40 advantage with 15:52 left.
Gonzaga pulled within 66-61 on Cory Violette's layup with 5 1/2 minutes remaining.
The Bulldogs had chances to get closer, but were done in by a flurry of mistakes. Stepp lost the ball for a turnover, botched an alley-oop pass to Erroll Knight and Violette traveled - all in the final 75 seconds.
"We just didn't make plays down the stretch," Stepp said. "We just made a couple of dumb errors and you can't do hat in a close game down the stretch."
Violette collected 13 points and 15 rebounds and freshman Adam Morrison added 10 points.
The Hawks, whose gym seats only 3,200 fans, were also bolstered from several busloads of their fans making the trip from Philadelphia in the school's first visit to Madison Square Garden since the 1996 NIT. Nelson's hometown of Chester, Pennsylvania also sent plenty of supporters.
"Those of you who are not from Philadelphia saw the passion that our people have for St. Joe's basketball," Martelli said. "We had more people here than we will have at any home game this year."