Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Gamecocks' Balance, Size and Depth Too Much for Aggies

In the span of a little more than forty eight hours, Colonial Life Arena was the center of the men's and women's basketball universe and ESPN, with two games featuring #1 ranked, undefeated teams.  On Saturday at noon, the South Carolina men's team hosted #1 Kentucky in front of a sold out crowd of 18,000.   On Monday night, the #1 ranked South Carolina women's team hosted #12 Texas A&M.

On Saturday, The Wildcats were too much for the Gamecocks on Saturday.   Kentucky's size thwarted any inside play that South Carolina could muster and the Gamecocks outside shooting woes continued in a Wildcats 58-43 victory.

South Carolina fans were looking for revenge on Monday night and they again proved why the Gamecocks are #10 in the country in women's basketball attendance.  13,546 strong came out Monday night for the nationally televised ESPN game.   The lower bowl of the arena was completely full and the upper bowl was about 1/4 full.  It made for a loud and fun atmosphere, especially when you had Baseline Jesus running around the arena, pumping up the crowd.  The fans were eager to see their Gamecocks dominate the Aggies.

The Aggies however are one of the few teams that can match the size of Dawn Staley's Gamecocks, who have four players six foot four or taller; Alaina Coates, A'ja Wilson, Elem Ibiam and Jatarie White.   Texas A&M has a six foot seven center in junior Rachel Mitchell, a six foot five freshman in Khaalia Hillsman and six foot three Jada Terry.

Thus the Aggies were able to trade blows with the physical Gamecocks for the first twelve minutes. Hillsman hit a layup to put Texas A&M up 24-20.  The South Carolina fans were starting to get restless.

Then just like that, the Gamecocks came alive.  They went on a 14-0 run over the next four and half plus minutes.  It was sparked by the six foot four freshman guard Wilson.   Yes, Wilson is listed as a guard and she drives and runs the court like a guard.  Wilson had four points and an assist during that span.  Her assist on an Ibiam layup capped the run and put the Gamecocks up 34-24.

One possession late in the first half showed how difficult it is to match-up with South Carolina due to their size and relentlessness. Aleighsa Welch missed a short jumper.  Wilson grabbed the offensive rebound and missed the putback. Coates got the rebound and missed a putback.  Welch got the rebound and put it back in for a layup and a 39-29 lead.   I turned to my color analyst, aka my older son Matthew and said "Four for a quarter".

The Gamecocks would end up leading at halftime 39-31.   At halftime, the University celebrated all its 3.0 scholar athletes with a parade around the court of all the players on the teams with a grade point average of 3.0 or higher.    After the parade, there wasn't enough time left for the usual Cocky dance with the kids, since they couldn't assemble the kids that quickly after the parade.  Thus Cocky was left to dance with himself and you could dance in your seats with Cocky.  Matthew had no interest in dancing to the Chicken Dance in his seat.

The Gamecocks must have left their shooting touch in the locker room at halftime.  South Carolina failed to score a basket over nearly the first five and half minutes in the second half.   They only scored one point on a free throw over the first three minutes.

Meanwhile, Jordan Jones was going to work for the Aggies.   She scored five points during this span, including a three pointer to cut the Gamecocks lead to 40-38.   The South Carolina faithful starting getting antsy as the Gamecocks lead was being challenged.

South Carolina answered the bell.   Tiffany Mitchell was able to get to the foul line in the Gamecocks' next two possessions. She nailed all four free throws to put South Carolina up six, 44-38.  Mitchell then found Welch on a nice pass for a layup for the first basket for the Gamecocks in the second half.  Then Coates made two free throws to put South Carolina back up ten 48-38.

Courtney Walker would hit two jumpers in a row to get Texas A&M back within six, 48-42.  But after that, the Gamecocks clamped down on the Aggies.  Over the span of the next six and a half minutes, South Carolina held Texas A&M to two free throws and a layup.  Meanwhile, the Gamecocks did a great job of sharing the basketball, with assists on four baskets during the span.  The small but feisty point guard Bianca Cuevas capped the the 19-4 Gamecocks' run with a layup to put South Carolina up 67-46 with 6:46 left in the game.

From there, Texas A&M had no choice to try to slow the game down by fouling.  Ten of the last twelve Gamecocks points came on free throws.  Despite slowing the game down, the Aggies could not get any closer than eighteen points the rest of the way.  And that was the final score margin as South Carolina won convincingly 79-61.

The Aggies were held to thirty eight percent from the field and they were fortunate they shot that well.   Texas A&M's second leading scorer on the season, Courtney Williams was 3 for 21 from the field.   The Aggies leading scorer on the season, Courtney Walker,  was held four points under her season average of fourteen.   South Carolina out-rebounded Texas A&M 43-29.

The Gamecocks shot forty nine percent from the field and eighty percent from the line (24 of 30).  Four players scored in double figures for South Carolina;  Wilson led the way off the bench with eighteen points and nearly had a double double as she grabbed nine rebounds.  Mitchell added sixteen points.  Coates had a double double with twelve points and eleven rebounds and Welch added twelve points and seven rebounds.

Unlike Saturday, the Gamecock crowd went home happy.  Their #1 team again showed their dominance against a very good SEC opponent.  A lot of talk around the college basketball world is whether the Kentucky men's team can go through the season undefeated or at least through the SEC conference.

After last night's performance at Colonial Life Arena, I expect the same talk to pick up about the South Carolina women's team.

Yes, they're that dominant.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Seton Hall Women's Team Shows Their Resiliency

"The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. It's a very mean and nasty place and I don't care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done!" (Rocky Balboa 2006)
That is one of my all-time favorite inspirational quotes.  The movie, Rocky Balboa, the sixth in the "Rocky" series, was an OK movie.   But the shown above shortened version of the scene where Rocky talks to his son accurately portrays life.   We've all had moments in our lives, where we have been knocked down, often knocked down hard, perhaps even to the point where you want to just crawl in a hole and just hide.

But it's how we respond to adversity that makes us who we are in life. In college basketball, whether men's or women's, the good teams respond to adversity.   A bad loss is followed by a good win, often several good wins.

In the beginning of January, the Seton Hall Women's Basketball team were on an unprecedented streak.  They rolled into St John's Carnesecca Arena on Friday, January 2nd having won twelve games in a row.  They had a win over previously undefeated #14 Georgia, a win over Illinois, a road win over defending Big Ten Champ Penn State and a win over Butler, a team that has had only two losses in the Big East so far this season.  Seton Hall was even nationally ranked for the first time ever with a #23 ranking.

For me, it was a chance to see my good friends Tony Bozzella, head coach of Seton Hall and Lauren DeFalco. one of his assistant coaches, along with Tony's family.  I also was looking forward to see in person an exciting team that I had seen once this college basketball season, a nationally televised win over Creighton.

For about thirty one and a half minutes, the Pirates more than held their own against the Red Storm, as they led 48-43 with 9:30 left in the game.

Then as Coach Bozzella noted in his post game press conference "When a little adversity hit, they punched us." St John's defense clamped down on Seton Hall over the last nine and a half minutes.  The Red Storm finished the game on a 16-2 run to win 59-50.  

Bozzella also noted in the post game press conference "I told Joe, I think the difference right now is your defense is better than ours. St. John’s ‘out-toughed’ us. I pride myself on resiliency and that’s what good teams are made of, but we didn't have that. St. John’s did. And that’s why we are trying to get to the point where they’re at. Our resiliency was poor.”

St John's hit Seton Hall "Rocky Balboa hard" over that span.  The Red storm out-rebounded the Pirates 48-40 and frustrated the Hall so much on offense, especially the last part of the game, that they forced as many turnovers on the Pirates, as the Pirates did to the Red Storm with their press, twenty. Amber Thompson set a St John's record with twenty rebounds in the game.  It was only Seton Hall's second loss on the season.

Seton Hall was beaten at its own game and beaten hard by a team, St John's, that Seton Hall aspires to be; a team that makes the NCAA Tournament every season.  The Red Storm have been to the NCAA Tournament each of the past five seasons.

So the Pirates left Carnesecca Arena licking their wounds.  The question now was how would Seton Hall respond.  How resilient is this Pirates team?

It turns out very resilient.

Seton Hall had one week to work on their defense and resiliency before they played Xavier at home.  The Musketeers came into the game with only one loss in conference and an 11-4 record overall.  The Pirates came out and were up nine in the first half before the Musketeers responded with a rally tie the game at thirty one.  Then up three in the second, Seton Hall went on a 20-4 to go on to a 78-54 win. Ka-Deidre Simmons led five Pirates scorers in double figures with nineteen points.   The Pirates showed their trademark press, forcing twenty two Xavier turnovers.

Then two days later, Seton Hall was on the road at Providence.  The Friars took a 35-27 lead into halftime.  It was only the third time all season the Pirates were down at the half.  The other two times, at West Virginia and at St John's, they had lost.

Providence extended their lead to seventeen, 46-29 with 16:19 left in the game.  Seton Hall had been rocked to the canvas with an 11-2 right hand run by the Pirates.  It looked like it would be the third loss for the Pirates after trailing at halftime.

But the Pirates got off the canvas this time and responded with a rally that Rocky Balboa would be proud of.

Seton Hall came back in the second half, first using a 17-7 spurt to cut the deficit to seven, 53-46.   Then down eight, 64-56 with 4:17 left, the Pirates made another run, outscoring the Friars 12-3 the rest of the game.  Ka-Deidre Simmons would give the Pirates their first lead since 16:27 of the first half ,hitting two free throws to put the Hall up 68-67 win twelve seconds left.  The Hall defense then put their signature mark on the game, forcing a turnover to end the contest.   Simmons led the Pirates with twenty two points, as again again they showed balance as four Hall starters scored in double figures.

Next on the hit list was Marquette this past Friday.  Seton Hall did what you are supposed to do against the last place team in the conference; win and win handily.  The Pirates led by as many as thirty three points before winning 88-58.   The Hall again continued their balanced scoring as four players again scored in double figures.  Daisha Simmons led the way with twenty four points.

Yesterday, Seton Hall faced perhaps so far its biggest challenge of the season.  DePaul, who was in first place in the Big East and had won at St John's in overtime on Friday night, came into South Orange, New Jersey on a four game winning streak.   This was a chance to show the Big East and the Pirates' home crowd at Walsh Gymnasium that Seton Hall was a legitimate contender for the Big East title.

But again, the Pirates would have to show resiliency.   The Blue Demons jumped out to an early 11-4 lead.   The Pirates would respond, rallying to tie the game at twenty two.   DePaul would retake the lead 31-24.   Seton Hall would respond again, outscoring the Blue Demons 17-7 to take a 41-38 lead on a Ka-Deidre Simmons three pointer.  The Pirates would extend the lead to eight, 56-48 before DePaul cut the lead back to three, 57-54.

That was the score after twenty minutes.  TWENTY MINUTES.  The Knicks only scored fifty six points in THREE quarters in their last loss to Milwaukee.

In the second half, DePaul's Jessica January showed it was her month by hitting a three pointer to tie the game at fifty seven.  From there, it was all the Hall.  Ka-Deidre Simmons put the Pirates ahead to stay 59-57 with a layup.  It was the start of a 23-7 run over the next nine and a half minutes as Seton Hall went up 80-64.

The Pirates were not done scoring however as they put up another twenty seven points on the scoreboard as they ran the Blue Demons out of Walsh Gymnasium 107-87.  Seton Hall took over sole possession of first place in the Big East by simply setting the all time single game scoring record in program history.

This time, only three Pirates' players scored in double figures.  But what a total those three players, Tabitha Richardson Smith (35 points), Ka-Deidre Simmons (28 points) and Daisha Simmons (22 points), put together; a whopping 85 points that nearly matched DePaul's total points.  They combined to shoot a scorching twenty seven of fifty one from the field.  The Hall shot fifty five percent from the field, including eleven of twenty one from beyond the arc.  What was really impressive was Seton Hall held DePaul to twenty eight percent from the field in the second half.

So after being "out-toughed" by St John's, the Pirates came back and showed their toughness, winning four games in a row.  The question of resiliency has been answered for the time being. And for now, Seton Hall's world is full of sunshine and rainbows, as the Pirates have sole possession of first place in the Big East.

But with two road games upcoming; at Villanova and at Georgetown, followed by a chance to "out-tough the Red Storm" in their rematch at home with St John's, dark clouds could be on the horizon.

How Seton Hall continues to show their resiliency over the next three games will say a lot about their potential NCAA Tournament future.

As Rocky Balboa might say, they need to keep taking the hard punches and keeping moving forward.  That's how winning is done.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Dumpster Fire That Is Drexel

The last couple of weeks for me have been very busy.  Between work, starting a travel baseball team and a couple of road trips to Charleston and Elon for Hofstra basketball games late last week, sleep and a College Hardwood Post had been a rare commodity, just like a well played game by Fordham.

Thus I took a nap this evening after I got home and had dinner.  After my nearly two hour nap, I checked what was going on Twitter, caught up on a few things, then I noticed the Drexel - James Madison 54-35 score.  Ugh. Then I read this tweet of my good friend Jerry Beach, aka Defiantly Dutch.  I immediately went over to DragonsSpeak, the twitter feed of our friend Dan Crain, loyal Drexel alum and fan, who writes the Dragons Speak blog.

At about 8:30 PM, Dan tweeted "Let's Break Twitter".  Dan had had enough of what would turnout to be a Dragons 54-35 loss to a team that had just dismissed one of its better players earlier in the day, Andre Nation, who albeit was a true handful in his three years with the Dukes.  You would think that the Dragons would give a better effort against a team missing a player who averaged twenty seven minutes per game.  Basically Dan ripped into his alma mater, and rightfully so, for the play that he was forced to watch tonight.

But this was not a Monday morning quarterback rant.  Dan had predicted this in his preview of the Dragons earlier today.  Bruiser Flint, the longtime head coach of Drexel has a propensity to not bend in his ways and Dan knew what Bruiser would do this evening in his Thursday preview of the game.  He even nearly predicted how many points JMU would score this evening (he had the game as 56-48 JMU) and he wrote this gem.
Zone defenses are primarily beaten with quick ball movement, perimeter shooting and offensive rebounding.  Bru then has two options:  Flood the floor with guards who can't shoot, knowing that Allen, London, Wilson and Mojica will all get wide open looks from mid range and beyond.  The downside is that none of those guys have hit those looks before, and with only one forward on the floor against JMU's height, DU won't get any offensive rebounds.  The alternative is to leave two of those four guards on the floor alongside Damion and two big men, leaving just as many shooters on the floor (1) and the possibility to get stick backs and clog the lane on defense.
Just in case we haven't beaten this into the ground enough, look Tuesday for a stats post breaking down the 4 guard vs the 3.  It's ugly.
For my prediction, I'm assuming that Bru will show his stubbornness, because that's the track record.
So what did Drexel do?  The Dragons played a four guard set and proceeded to shoot four of nineteen from beyond the arc and twelve of fifty for the game. Twelve of fifty.  Yes, folks, that's twenty four percent.    And if you are basically shooting and missing the three on a zone, it stands to reason that you only get twelve free throw attempts, which they only hit on seven.  Thus, thirty five points.  Even Josh Verlin of the terrific City of Basketball Love tweeted that it was "an embarrassment".

But if that wasn't bad enough, Through one of Dan's followers, I saw them retweet this picture from DrexelOnline.

I have NEVER seen the DAC, aka the Daskalakis Athletic Center, this empty.  Ever.  And for those of you who are the College Hardwood Marines, aka the few, the proud, the readers of my site know, I have been to more than my share of games at the DAC.  It's usually one of the more fun places to watch a game, because it can be loud, hot and a drain on a road opponent.

Now it's looking like this.  The attendance figure says there were 1,186 at the game.  It sure doesn't look like 1,186.

The Dragons are 3-13 now, 1-4 in the CAA.  Only three seasons ago, the Dragons went 29-7, 16-2 in the CAA and made the NIT Quarterfinals, before losing at home to UMass.  Heck, I was there for the loss to the Minutemen at the DAC.  The attendance for the game; 2,293.  There was definitely 2,293 in attendance that rocking night!   The amazing thing was that the only starter that graduated from that team that season was Samme Givens.   The future should have been so bright for Drexel.

UMass-Drexel NIT Quarterfinal March 2012
So what happened to a team that in the span of three seasons may likely have twenty less wins than that 2011-12 Dragons team?

Well, first, that 2012-13 team seriously underachieved.   First, they suffered tough overtime losses to Kent State and Illinois State,  Then they lost Chris Fouch in the third game of the season.  Still, they had Frantz Massenat, Derrick Thomas, Dartaye Ruffin and Darryl McCoy, all key members of that 2011-12 team.  Plus Drexel added two talented freshmen in Damion Lee, who ended up being the leading scorer on that team and Tavon Allen.

Yet Drexel never recovered from the two overtime losses and the injury to Fouch and stumbled to a 13-18 record, finishing .500 in the CAA at 9-9 and quickly exited from the CAA Tournament at the hands of George Mason.   Brian Mull noted earlier that season that the loss of the post presence in Givens was a bigger loss than anyone could have realized for Drexel.

Drexel-Davidson December 2013
The 2013-14 team looked to be a better team with the return of Fouch, along with Lee, Massenat and Allen.   Unfortunately, Lee got injured five games into the season.   Still the Dragons started out strong, going 7-2 with wins over Alabama, Cleveland State, Illinois State and Rutgers.  Their only two losses were by five points and four points respectively to nationally ranked UCLA and Arizona.   The Dragons seemed to be back, especially when I saw them defeat Davidson at Belk Arena in December of 2013.

Then it all fell apart.  Drexel would go 9-12 the rest of the season and only 8-8 in the CAA.  The Dragons would then quickly be eliminated by Northeastern in the CAA Quarterfinals 90-81, in a game where Drexel was down several times by seventeen points.  

What had started out so promising ended in flames.  Now this season.   It's a five alarm dumpster fire.

So what are the reasons for this?   First, injuries have been a huge factor.  Their only real point guard, Major Canady and one of their main forwards, Kazembe Abif were out for the season before even the season started.  Promising sophomore forward Rodney Williams suffered a stress fracture in his foot in late December and he's now out for the season.   Even seldom used Sooren Derboghosian is out indefinitely with a knee injury.  The Dragons are playing with basically a seven man rotation.

Drexel-Davidson December 2013
But as you can clearly tell from Dan's posts that it is also coaching style.  Bruiser Flint has at times done a very good job at Drexel.  His 2006-07 and 2011-12 teams should have made the NCAA Tournament.  But in the last nine seasons at Drexel, there also have been four teams at or below .500, another team that finished one game above .500 and another team that finished two games above .500.  Only three times in the past nine seasons has Bruiser won twenty games.

Based on Dan's blog, Bruiser is very set in his ways during a game and does not make adjustments.  He starts a four guard offense despite only one of them, Lee, being a really good shooter.  Allen has seriously regressed as a shooter since his freshman year.  His three point field goal percentage has gone from 36 percent to 28 percent to 26 percent over the past three seasons.  Yet Allen is attempting double the number of three point attempts, 5.4 as opposed to last season 2.7.

2012 NIT Quarterfinal - UMass vs. Drexel
Yet Bruiser keeps using a four guard set and as Dan notes "Drexel is 1-6 in games where they have broken out the 4 guard set, beginning with the UD home game last year".   Drexel is also last in the CAA in three point field goal percentage at 29.4 percent.

The kicker is that Drexel is second in the CAA in free throw percentage at 70 percent, yet they have the fewest free throw attempts in the Colonial with 259 attempts going into tonight's action (that's sixteen per game).

When you also go with a four guard set, you leave yourself susceptible to inside scoring.  In the loss against UNC Wilmington, Dan notes that UNCW shot 60 percent on two point field goal attempts.  It also means that you are likely to get outrebounded.  The Dragons are 270th in the country in rebounds, dead last in the CAA in rebounds and eighth in the CAA in rebounding margin at -2.4.  For those of us longtime CAAHoops fans, this is sad to see, since we know that Drexel prided itself on toughness and rebounding.  The term "rockfight" started with Drexel.

When you are only making five three point field goals per game, when you are dead last in three point field goal percentage and are getting killed on the boards, the last thing you should do is play a four guard starting lineup.

It's sad to see Drexel at 3-13.  It's sad to see the DAC so empty.  And it's sad to see a friend like Dan so frustrated, along with many other Drexel fans, who are often the most creative fans in college basketball.

As Dan noted in a tweet tonight, Bruiser Flint is the third highest paid employee at Drexel.   After the past few seasons and what's happening this season, one highly wonders if that salary statistic will remain the same after this season.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Hofstra Outslugs College of Charleston

Over the past nearly ten years that I have been writing about college basketball, one term occasionally is thrown about, especially in #CAAHoops circles; the term "rockfight".   The term was started by several CAA bloggers and fans, often to denote Drexel basketball.   Rockfight in CAA circles is often a low scoring, often bad shooting knock em down, drag out, physical affair.  There are lots of fouls, but not a lot of points. Basically the kind of game Drexel and Bruiser Flint seemingly loved to play over the years.  The wrestling announcer Jim Ross would call such a game "a slobberknocker".

Thus was the case last night between Hofstra and the College of Charleston at TD Arena on the campus of the College of Charleston.   The two teams were at the opposite ends of the Colonial standings. Hofstra was tied for first at 2-0, while CofC was 0-2.   But as the other games in the CAA last night showed, standings and previous game play didn't matter.

It was nice to be back at TD Arena in one of my favorite cities in the United States and only two hours from where I live in Columbia.  And there's nothing better than a good high school steel drum band, which greeted us in the concourse of the arena.

The game started out slowly from an offensive standpoint.  Neither team was shooting well and the score after eight minutes of play was 8-4 Hofstra.  After nine and a half minutes it was 11-4.  Then in the span of seventy five seconds, CofC scored nearly doubled their point total with a 7-0 run to tie the game at eleven on a Canyon Barry three pointer.

But both teams would continue to struggle, as they shot under thirty percent for most of the first half . With about nine minutes left in the first half, there were as many fouls by both teams, thirteen, as Hofstra had points.  Things didn't get any better as the score was only 17-13 with six minutes left in the half.

This was due in large part to the physical play on the court.   There were several non calls on Hofstra which made the CofC fans irate.  When a foul was finally called on Hofstra, there was a huge howl from the crowd, basically as a sigh of relief from the previous officiating of the game.

The pace would pick up over those final six minutes and The Pride would enter halftime up 28-24.  At the beginning of the halftime, the public address announcer noted that if Charleston wins a game by scoring 71 or more points, the fans would be treated to a meal deal at a local restaurant.   In this case, that would mean the Cougars would have to basically double their output in the first half, an unlikely event given their shooting percentage.

Ameen Tanksley started the second half, doing what he does best, burying a three pointer to put the Pride up seven, 31-24.  But the Cougars came to life and as a result, so did the crowd.  CofC outscored Hofstra 13-5 over the next six and a half minutes.  Anthony Stitt's jumper put the Cougars up 37-36 and the CofC fans in attendance made the most noise they had all night. After a Green free throw tied the game at thirty seven, Baru hit a jumper to put the Cougars up two 39-37.

The Pride responded with a 12-3 spurt of their own, scoring all their points on three pointers. , Green and Dion Nesmith each hit one, then Tanksley hit two in a row.  His second three pointer put Hofstra up 49-42 with a little under nine minutes left.  It looked like the Pride were hitting their stride shooting wise.

However, the Cougars had another run in them.   They outscored Hofstra 13-3 over the span of four minutes.  Barry again did a good part of the damage.   His three pointer tied the game at fifty two.  Then Cameron Johnson banked in a three to put the CofC up 55-52 with 4:51 left and the John Kresse Court was the loudest it had been all night.

For the first thirty five minutes of the game, the Pride had struggled from the line.  They had shot eleven of nineteen going into those last four minutes and fifty one seconds of the game.

Then a strange thing happened.  Brian Bernardi was fouled on a three point attempt.  He calmly sank all three free throws to tie the game at fifty five.  After Donovan Gilmore put the Cougars back up with two free throws, Green tied the game for Hofstra again, making both of his free throws, which made it five three throws in a row for Hofstra.  Green would come up huge again, hitting a jumper to put Hofstra up 59-57 with 2:48 left.

While Hofstra had troubles from the charity stripe for most the game, CofC had been very good, shooting 11 of 13 from the line.  But down the stretch, the Cougars charity stripe shooting failed them.  Johnson first had a chance to tie the game, but only made one of two free throws to cut the lead to one, 59-58.  Then after a terrific drive and layup by Dion Nesmith put the Pride up three, 61-58 with a little over a minute left, Adjehi Baru had a chance to cut the lead to one.  He missed one of two free throws as well.

The Cougars were down two, 61-59 with thirty eight seconds left and had to foul the rest of the game.  But Green and Nesmith were huge down the stretch, hitting all eight of their free throws.  Mix in a great pass from Nesmith to Moussa Kone for a thunderous dunk and Hofstra escaped with the 71-66 win.

After both teams combined for fifty two points in the first half, each team scored over forty points in the second half.  Go figure.  Still, the Pride had more fouls, twenty, than baskets, nineteen.  For CofC, it was close. Twenty two baskets to twenty one fouls.

Green had another stat stuffer game with 26 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists.  Green shot 13 of 14 from the charity stripe.  Tanksley added 17 points and Nesmith had 11 points off the bench for the Pride.  Hofstra went 13 for 13 from the line over the last 4:22 of the game.

Barry led the Cougars with 21 points , 7 rebounds and 3 steals.  He showed a nice all around game as he drove the basket often on Bernardi, who had a hard time covering him. Stitt added 11 points.

On a night where William and Mary and James Madison suffered their first conference defeats, Hofstra managed to squeak out a road win.  The road is often unkind to #CAAHoops teams.  When you get a win after a "rockfight" on your opponents' floor in the Colonial, the bus ride afterwards is a lot sweeter.

There must have been a lot of smiling faces on the Pride players as they headed to Elon for their next game on Saturday.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Brooklyn Winter Hoops Festival at Barclays

The Barclays Center opened in September 2012.    It has quickly become a sports and entertainment force in thwe New York City Metro Area.  The Barclays Center is the home of the Brooklyn Nets and the soon to be home of the New York Islanders.   It has also become a major stop for big name music tours, as evidence by Elton John playing at Barclays on New Year's Eve.

The Barclays Center has also quickly become a major venue for college basketball, having hosted many games and tournaments in the past two plus years.   Yesterday, for the third college basketball season in a row, Barclays was hosting its Brooklyn Hoops Winter Festival, a triple header of college basketball, featuring local and national teams.   It also happened to be the third season in a row that my good friend Tony Terentieff, aka Tieff, and I attended a event.    In the past, teams such as West Virginia, Michigan, Boston College, VCU and Kansas State among others, have played in the Brooklyn Hoops Winter Festival.

This season's event had more of a local flavor to it, with nationally ranked St John's heading the billing, along with Hofstra, in its second appearance at the Barclays Center and LIU Brooklyn.  The Red Storm, which is the only team to have played in now all three Brooklyn Hoops Winter Festivals, took on the Green Wave of Tulane, which was playing in its second Brooklyn Hoops Winter Festival in a row and has also now played in the Barclays Center three years in a row (they took on Hofstra in another Barclays Center tripleheader back in 2012).  The Green Wave have a solid alumni base in New York and again, a contingent of their fans showed up to see their team.   But their fan base paled in comparison to the hometown Johnnies, with their legions of fans in attendance.

I had got my tickets through the Hofstra ticket office, so naturally we were sitting in the Pride section of the arena.   When we got there, you could quickly see that they "evil black curtained" off the upper level seats, so only the lower bowl seats were accessible for the tournament.   It was only fitting that Fairfield would be playing in the third game of the festival.  I am sure the Bridgeport Arena native Stags felt at home at Barclays.

As a sea of red watched on, Tulane, which had won nine of its first eleven games, albeit their best win was over a struggling Mississippi State team, came out strong.  Louis Dabney scored the first five Green Wave points and Tulane took a 9-6 lead.  

But the Red Storm are ranked #17 nationally for a reason and that reason is their defense, which clamped down on the Green Wave.  In the span of less than three minutes, St John's forced four turnovers.  Meanwhile Sir'Dominic Porter was starting to go to town, as he had two baskets and assisted on another on an 8-0 spurt to put St John's up 14-9.  

Tulane called timeout to try to stop the bleeding.  Briefly, it seemed to work, as Payton Henson hit a jumper to bring the Green Wave to within three, 14-11.  However, that's as close as Tulane would get the rest of the way.   That was due in large part to the aforementioned Red Storm defense.

During a 17-5 St John's run that put the Johnies up 31-16 and basically the game out of reach for Tulane, the Red Storm held the Green Wave to 2 of 12 from the field.  St John's swarms to the ball, plays great help defense and they have the ultimate intimidator inside, Chris Obekpa.    If Obekpa is not blocking a shot, he is altering one.  In one instance, his mere presence resulted in Tulane Center Ryan Smith, figuring Obekpa would challenge the shot, chucking a shot high off the backboard so that Obekpa couldn't block it.  Obekpa, who never attempted to block the shot, just watched as the shot banged off the glass and then clanked hard off the rim. Obekpa had four blocks on the game in twenty two minutes of action.

After Tulane had come within eleven, 33-22,  the Red Storm would score the final fourteen points of the first half to put the game away.  A Phil Greene IV alley oop pass to Rysheed Jordan for the dunk capped the run, putting St John's up 47-22 at the half.  Pointer was especially dominant in the first half, scoring fifteen points and adding three assists.  

The last twenty minutes of the game basically came down to whether Tulane could keep the losing margin under thirty points.  Tulane managed to hold serve, scoring as many points as St John's did in the second half.   The Green Wave may have found solace in that, but they still lost by twenty five, 82-57.

Pointer and Dominic Harrison were responsible for most of the offense St John's needed on the day.   They would combine for forty five points on a very efficient 16 of 26 shooting from the field and 12 of 13 from the line.  Pointer was a stat sheet stuffer, as he had four assists, four rebounds, seven steals and two blocks to go with his twenty four points.  Jordan added twelve points for the Red Storm, who had fourteen steals on the day.

Dabney and Jonathan Stark were the only double figure scorers for Tulane, scoring twelve and fifteen points respectively on 11 of 26 shooting from the field.  The rest of the Green Wave shot 11 of 32 from the field.

The second game of the tripleheader featured a local battle between Hofstra, my long time home as a student and as an administrator, and LIU Brooklyn.  The Pride came into the game with their first losing streak of the season after winning seven of their first nine games.  They lost at Columbia and followed that up with a loss at home to LaSalle.  Meanwhile, the Blackbirds had won four games in a row after losing their first seven games.  One streak was guaranteed to continue at the end of this game.

The start of this game somewhat mirrored the start of the first game.  LIU Brooklyn came out the aggressor and took a 7-5 lead.  After Dion Nesmith tied the game at seven, both teams went scoreless for the next three minutes.  Finally, Moussa Kone would hit on a layup to put Hofstra in front to stay, 9-7.   Gerrell Martin hit a three pointer to cut the Pride lead to one, 11-10, with a little under twelve minutes left in the half.

From there it was all Hofstra, as the Pride outscored the Blackbirds 34-15 the rest of the half.   Ameen Tanksley did most of the damage, scoring fifteen first half points, thirteen of which came over the final eight minutes and seven seconds of the first half.   His jumper with forty seconds in the half gave Hofstra a 45-25 halftime lead.  For the second game in a row, a team took a twenty point or more lead into the half.

LIU Brooklyn showed more life than Tulane did after halftime, as the Blackbirds outscored the Pride 12-4 over the first three plus minutes of the second half.  Martin Hermannsson, part of LIU Brooklyn's dynamic Iceland freshman duo, along with Elvar Fridriksson, assisted on two straight baskets.  The second of which, a layup by Iverson Fleming, cut the Hofstra lead to twelve, 49-37.

But Hofstra had their dynamic duo of their own in Tanksley and point guard Juan'ya Green.  Green assisted on Tanksley's three pointer to start a 10-0 spurt over the span of about three minutes.  Moussa Kone's layup capped the spurt, which put the Pride up 59-37.  

From there, LIU Brooklyn would only get as close as fifteen, 70-55 with a little over six minutes left.  From there, the dynamic duo of Tanksley and Green would seal the deal, as they led Hofstra on a 14-0 run, capped again by another assist by Green, this time on a three pointer by Bernardi to make the score 84-55.

This resulted in a huge roar from the Hofstra crowd.  But the roar was not a result of Bernardi's three.  The Pride faithful had been keeping track of Green's stats on the scoreboard.  Green easily had over double digits in points by scoring the first two baskets of the second half for Hofstra.   Then he grabbed his tenth rebound with a little over three minutes left.

But what Green is really known for is being an assist machine, as he averages nearly seven assists per game.  When he fed Bernardi for the three, he had a triple double, 15 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists.  It was the first time in Hofstra program history that a player had a triple double in a game.  When you think of all the Hofstra greats including Rich Laurel, Speedy Claxton, Loren Stokes, Antoine Agudio and Charles Jenkins, none of them ever had a triple double.  Green is the first.

Hofstra would go for the 88-62 win over LIU Brooklyn.   The Pride shot over fifty percent from the field, including a smoldering 14 of 27 from beyond the arc.  Tanskley led the long range assault as he scored a career high 32 points on 12 of 20 shooting from the field.  He also added eight rebounds, as the Pride outrebounded the Blackbirds 45-33.  Nesmith added thirteen points off the bench, while Bernardi added twelve points, all from beyond the arc.

For LIU Brooklyn, Nura Zanna led the way with fourteen points and nine rebounds.  Fleming added thirteen points off the bench and Joel Hernandez added another ten off the pine for the Blackbirds.  LIU Brooklyn was held to thirty five percent shooting, including 7 of 24 from three point land.

After the Hofstra game ended, Tieff and I headed out of Barclays.  There was still the third game between Loyola-Maryland and Fairfield.  But the Stags would be left to deal with the Evil Black Curtain on their own.  It was time to head back to Long Island for our traditional Dairy Queen Victory Blizzard at the newest DQ franchise in Levittown.    Nothing like a DQ Blizzard, especially after a win for the alma mater.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Columbia Outlasts Hofstra in Shootout

My family and I traveled up from South Carolina to Long Island starting Friday afternoon.   We got to Levittown, New York yesterday evening at 6:30 pm, just in time for me to spend a few bucks on a monthly Columbia Athletics - Ivy League Digital Network online streaming pass for my iPad.   I was looking forward to seeing Hofstra take on Columbia.

Columbia recently received a lot of well earned press for their showing at #1 Kentucky.   The Lions led a good part of that game until the Wildcats rallied in the second half for the 56-46 win.   But the game showed how good a team Columbia was, especially defensively.   The Lions held the Wildcats to thirty seven percent shooting from the field, including stifling Kentucky from beyond the arc, as Kentucky hit on only two of seventeen three point attempts.   The Kentucky game was typical of Columbia's defensive play, as they had only allowed one team to score more than sixty points in a game on the season, Loyola, heading into their game with Hofstra.

The Pride on the other hand, have been an offensive juggernaut this season.  They are averaging eighty one points per game, seventeenth in the nation.   Hofstra is especially deadly from three, with two players, Ameen Tanksley and Brian Bernardi, each shooting over forty nine percent from three.  The Pride shoot forty three percent from beyond the arc on the season.    

So it was the irresistible force meeting the immovable object at Francis Leven Gymnasium last evening, or so it seemed.   What happened was Columbia was willing to play along with Hofstra, especially one Lions' guard in particular.

From the start, the pace favored Hofstra. With not even five minutes gone by, both teams put up a lot of points quickly, with Dion Nesmith tying the game at nine by hitting all three free throws after he was fouled on a three point attempt.

As they did all night, Columbia moved the ball well on the Hofstra zone, especially early on as the Lions hit on six of their first eight three point attempts.  Steve Frankoski would hit three of those and Maodo Lo added two three pointers in the first eight minutes of the game.  Jeff Coby's three pointer made it 20-14 Columbia with a little over eleven minutes left in the half.

The Pride did a better job guarding the Lions on the three over the last ten minutes of the half as Columbia would miss on their last ten three point attempts in the half.   This allowed Hofstra to make a late 12-5 spurt in the half.  Brian Bernardi's three pointer put the Pride up 38-34 at the half.

Considering the Pride put up almost as many points in the first half as Bucknell did in an entire game in a loss against the Lions earlier this season (thirty nine), you would figure coach Kyle Smith told his team to slow down the pace in the second half.    

Nope, the pace was just fine for Columbia, especially for Lo in the second half.  

Lo came out gunning in the start of the second half, first burying a three, then hitting on a layup to give Columbia a 39-38 lead.    The Pride would take the lead back, as Juan'ya Green scored four straight points to give Hofstra a 44-41 lead. 

Columbia would respond with a 8-2 spurt.   Lo again led the way, getting an old fashioned three point play to put the Lions back in front 49-46.   But Tanksley, who is shooting fifty six percent from beyond the arc this season, would nail his only three pointer of the game to tie the contest at forty nine.

With the game tied at fifty one, the Lions went ahead on a Luke Petrasek layup.  Then Lo buried another three to extend the lead to five, 56-51.   The Pride would hang around over the next few minutes.  Niesmith's  layup cut the Columbia lead to three, 61-58 with a little less than eight and a half minutes left in the game.

The Lions would then go on a 12-5 spurt over the next nearly four minutes, with Lo leading the charge.  Lo would score the first eight points during that run, the final points coming on his seventh three pointer of the game to put the Lions up 69-61.   Petrasek would score the final four points of the spurt on a free throw and a three pointer to put Columbia up ten 73-63 with about four and a half minutes left.

Hofstra would rally, scoring the next eight straight points, the last six coming from Green on a three pointer and an old fashioned three pointer.  Green's foul shot on the three point play cut the Lions lead to two, 73-71 with 2:15 left.  

The Pride played terrific half court defense on the next Columbia possession forcing Lo in the corner to put up an errant three pointer off the side of the backboard as the shot clock expired.   But Hofstra failed to put a a body on Columbia's Kyle Castlin on the rebound.  The ball deflected off the backboard directly to Castlin who put back the rebound for an easy layup and the likely dagger in Hofstra's heart.  

Hofstra had three chances on their next possession to cut Columbia's lead to two or one, but failed to capitalize on the offensive rebounds,  which was a microcosm of the whole game.  On second chance points, Columbia outscored Hofstra 12-3 for the game.    

The Lions finally got the rebound and Castlin was fouled by Green, which was his fifth foul in the game. Castlin  hit both free throws to put Columbia up 77-71 with thirty eight seconds left.  A few seconds later, Hofstra coach Joe Mihalich, tired of the questionable officiating for both sides all night, finally had enough after a Bernardi foul, and got a technical.  Lo for one of the rare times all night, missed the free throw shot.  

The Pride did their best to keep it close, but in the end the Lions had the hard fought 82-77 win in which was a very entertaining game.

Lo was a thorn in the Pride's side all night.   After putting sixteen on Kentucky, the Lions' leading scorer on the season went off on Hofstra, scoring 29 points on 10 of 21 from the field, including 7 of 15 from beyond the arc.   The Lions went 13 for 35 on three point attempts. Frankoski added fourteen, including shooting four of nine from beyond the arc and Castlin added 13 points.

As they have all season, the  Pride again had balanced scoring, as four players scored in double figures.  Green led Hofstra with 19 points but he only shot 5 of 19 from the field.  Nesmith and Tanskley each had 18 and Malik Nichols added 10 points.  Bernardi added 8 points for Hofstra, who got 73 of their 77 points from their starters.  The Lions' bench outscored the Pride's bench 33-4.

What I got out of the game was the following;  As for the Lions, Columbia does a great job of guarding the three.  They held Hofstra to 8 of 24 from beyond the arc.   Green and Tanksley were a combined 2 of 13 from beyond the arc.    It does leave them susceptible to drives to the basket as Green and Tanskley did several times.   The Lions moved the ball very well on offense and Lo is a handful to guard.   

Columbia really misses though their leading scorer from last season,  Alex Rosenberg, out for the season due to injury.  They don't have an inside scoring presence to make up for him.   Even with their small lineup, Hofstra outscored Columbia 20-18 in the paint.   

Still, Kyle Smith has done a very nice job with this team, which definitely has talent, despite what some "basketball experts" say (https://twitter.com/jonrothstein/status/546486314838011904).   The Lions could not have played such a good game against Kentucky without having talented players.   Imagine if Smith had a healthy Rosenberg.

As for the Pride, they showed their offense is legit.  After holding Kentucky to 56 points, the Lions gave up 77 to Hofstra.  Their entire starting lineup nearly all scored in double figures.   They remind me of the 2006-07 Pride, in that they have outstanding guards in Green, Tanksley, Bernardi and Nesmith, all who started with Nichols being the lone forward.    What was also encouraging is, that after struggling for most of the year from the free throw line, the Pride shot 21 of 25 from the charity stripe.

What Hofstra needs to work on is their quickness in getting to shooters on zone defense.   Unlike the App State game, where Hofstra did a good job getting out to defend the three,  the Pride seemed to be a step slow guarding the three yesterday.   It seemed too packed in at times.    Also, Hofstra desperately needs to get an inside scoring presence.  It was great to see Moussa Kone back for the Pride yesterday.  But Rokas Gustys is still hurt and Andre Walker was nowhere to be found yesterday.  The Pride need some frontcourt presence on both defense and offense when they play the likes of Northeastern's Scott Eatherton later in the season in conference play.  

The next Hofstra game, I will get to see in person, on Tuesday vs. LaSalle.  It will be nice to be back at the Mack Center for what should be another good college basketball game.