Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Iona is Missing Its Pep

If you are one of my marines, aka, the few, the proud, the readers of my site, you know of my love of college pep bands.  There is nothing better than a good college pep band at a basketball game.  It sure beats canned music.  I remember going to LaSalle to see Hofstra face the Explorers in the 2005-06 season.   The LaSalle Pep Band played the entire night.  There was no canned music played over the PA system, just the pep band.  It was awesome.

Over the years, I have talked about my fondness for the VCU Peppas and the George Mason Pep Band, two of the best college bands there are in college basketball.  But one of my favorite bands in particular is the Iona Pep Band, which were a staple at Iona men's home games for years.

In many of my College Hardwood recaps of Iona games over the years, I have devoted many a paragraph to the Iona Pep Band (just do a search of "Iona Pep Band" on my site).  My favorite recap that involved the Iona Pep Band was the game from 2012 where Iona used a 31-0 run to defeat St Peter's 98-61.  The pep band was so killing it that day, I stated the following;
As Matthew and I made our way out of the Hynes Center for perhaps the last time this season, I wondered two things.  One, I thought about whether Iona could not only win the MAAC Championship but also make a run to the Sweet Sixteen this season.  Second, I wondered if the Iona Pep Band hires themselves out to play at parties.

That's how good the Iona Pep Band is (the picture is from that St Peter's game).  I would hire them to play at a party (alas they have to travel to Columbia, South Carolina now for the party).  I even recorded my own video of them above playing "Immigrant Song".   I just wish I had better audio on my iPhone.

What I love about the Iona Pep Band is that for such a small ten piece band, they have a rich sound.  The Iona Pep Band also has an old school, eclectic catalog.  They play anywhere from Led Zeppelin's  "Immigrant Song", to Earth Wind and Fire's "September" to Rick James' "Brickhouse" to the Black Eyed Peas "I Got a Feeling".

They are also fond of playing TV show  and movie themes, including "The Wild Wild West", "Peter Gunn", the James Bond theme song and my personal favorite, a very bouncy version of "I Dream of Jeannie".   Finally, they play the BEST DAMN VERSION of STEELY DAN'S PEG!  Period.

Often I lamented the fact on Twitter that there was no Iona Pep Band at Iona Women's Basketball games.  And for those loyal readers who know, I covered A LOT of Iona Women's Basketball games over the years, so I did a lot of lamenting.

I even got to be Twitter friends with Walter Barrett, the trombone playing leader of the Iona Pep band,   From my friendship with him, I learned the band was hired by Iona, funded by alumni, since the school didn't have a pep band.  Walter had been part of the band for fifteen years.   The band was put together by the previous band leader of people he knew.  They offered students to help out, but over time it just became the regulars.  They are quite likely the oldest college pep band around, but they are also one of the best.

And it was not just me who is a big fan of the Iona Pep Band.   Jaden Daly, Mr. Daly Dose of Hoops himself is a huge fan of the Iona Pep Band.   When I left New York and moved down to South Carolina, Jaden would text me the song selections of the band when he was at Iona home games.   God I missed "Peg"  Thankfully, I've  heard the Iona Pep Band's version so many times, it is permanently, fondly etched in my head.

But something is missing this season for Iona.  The Pep Band.   I found out that the pep band was told that they were being replaced by a student band.   Now I can understand that, except for one thing.

Four games,  No student band.   Just canned music.


It's one thing to tell the pep band to be replaced by a student band.   It's another thing not to have that student band ready.    So the Iona home crowd fans have to listen to canned music.  Canned music can be OK, depending on the person picking the songs. Often the canned music though is made up of  only the current popular hits on the radio and in some cases, like Wagner, the PA system is too loud.  To me, nothing beats a live band playing a unique, fun set, especially with a great brass section, like the Iona Pep Band.

So I have a request to the Iona administration, from a long time friend of the Iona women's and men's basketball programs.  Until your student band is ready to go, please, please, PLEASE bring back the Iona Pep Band.

Living 750 miles away now, I won't be able to hear them play live, but I would love for Jaden Daly to let me know via Twitter that Walt and the gang are playing my favorite songs.

So again, Iona Administration, bring back the Pep Band.  Do it for the Iona fans. Let them hear "Peg" again!

"I know they're gonna love it."

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

In NJIT's Case, There Shouldn't Be Only One

Since the beginning of time, Notre Dame has been an independent in football.  The Fighting Irish have their own television network, NBC, which doesn't stand for the Notre Dame Broadcasting Network, though many think it should.  Notre Dame's independence is of their own choosing.

But the Fighting Irish aren't the only FBS/Division I independents in football. Army, Navy and BYU are independents as well.   Army and Navy, with their rich football history, can stand on their own.  BYU, which has had a long football history as well, first under Lavell Edwards, can also stand on their own, thanks to their own television network and its one billion dollar endowment (that is not a typo).  

In college basketball, there is only one Division I independent.  An independent, unlike Notre Dame and BYU, that would like a conference home.  A basketball program that's deserving of a home.

The New Jersey Institute of Technology, otherwise known as NJIT.   

Their team name is the Highlanders.  If you're like me, you remember the movie "Highlander".  It was about an ancient group of immortals that have searched each other out over centuries, fighting in sword duels, because there can be in the end only one of them.  The tag line for the movie, which spawned several sequels and a syndicated televison show, was "There can be only one". 

Based on NJIT's recent history, it's very fitting.

NJIT became a Division I team in 2006-07.  As they do now, they first played as an independent. They won their first two games against Manhattan and Rider, then proceeded to lose twenty four of their next twenty seven games to finish 5-24.  In 2007-08, they lost all twenty nine of their games. In 2008-09, they lost their first eighteen games, which gave them a fifty one game losing streak before they defeated Bryant.  They would lose their last twelve games to finish 1-30.

In that 2008-09 season, the Highlanders got a new head coach in Jim Engles.  Coach Engles had been a Division I assistant coach for eighteen years before taking over a NJIT.  He had previously been the top assistant coach at Columbia under Joe Jones.   

Engles methodically turned the Highlanders around.  In the 2009-10 season, the Highlanders would win ten games; a nine game improvement.  Their season included two wins over NEC member Wagner and two wins over now Big Sky member North Dakota.  

In the 2010-11 season, NJIT joined the Great West Conference, a conference that was like the last season of the East Coast Conference (Google it).  The Great West Conference had no automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, but at least the Highlanders had a home.  In their inaugural season in the GWC, NJIT again showed improvement under Engles as they finished with a .500 record at 15-15.   They went 9-3 in the regular season in the Great West, but lost their first round conference tournament game.    

In the 2011-12 season, the Highlanders again won fifteen games, including non conference wins over FDU, Lafayette and Army.   They finished 5-5 in the Great West and made it to the tournament championship game before losing to North Dakota.

In the 2012-13 season, NJIT had its first winning season, finishing 16-13.  The Highlanders had wins over Army and South Carolina State.  But more impressively, they had back to back single digit losses to St John's and Seton Hall.   They also lost at Villanova by only ten points.  NJIT would win the last Great West Conference regular season championship, but lost to Houston Baptist in the last Great West Conference Tournament.

After the 2012-13 season, the Great West dissolved.  All but one of its members found homes in other automatic bid NCAA conferences, with most joining the WAC.  All but NJIT. 

Not that NJIT didn't try to find a home.  The school tried to get into the America East but were rebuffed.  Perhaps Binghamton didn't want have another team finish ahead of it.

The Highlanders were now the only Division I Independent.  Last season, the Highlanders went 13-16, three wins less from the prior season.  However NJIT remained very competitive.  They had road wins over Army, New Hampshire, Maine (who they also beat at home), St Francis PA, Delaware State and UMES.

Coach Engles has done a great job building a veteran coaching staff and a roster of players from throughout the country and overseas.  

Coach Engle's staff includes several long time Division I assistants and head coaches.  Brian Kennedy was a former assistant at DePaul and was athletic director of The Hoop Group, one of the most well known leaders in basketball instruction in the country.  Brian's brother is Rob Kennedy, one of my favorite college basketball color analysts, who is also president of The Hoop Group.

Coach Engle's staff also includes Jesse Agel, Tom Brennan's longtime #1 assistant at Vermont.  Agel later became the head coach at Brown University.  Dino Presley is also a longtime Divison I assistant coach, with twenty one years of experience at schools such as Drexel, Towson, St Bonaventure and Marshall.

What may be even more impressive is NJIT's ability to recruit players from outside the New York New Jersey- Pennsylvania area.  Their roster includes players from Maryland, Florida, Texas, Greece and Russia.

I got to see NJIT in person last year at Hofstra when I was back in New York.  I was impressed with the Highlanders, especially their heart.  Several times it looked like Hofstra was going to blow them out of the Mack Center.  But NJIT rallied several times, including cut the deficit to three, 64-61 before losing 75-64.

One of the eight local New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania players on the Highlanders is Chris Jenkins, who played for Hofstra last season as a freshman, averaging twenty one minutes and five points per game.  He played in that game against NJIT, scoring twelve points on four three pointers.   Jenkins decided to transfer to NJIT knowing that playing time at Hofstra would be limited with Juan'ya Green, Ameen Tanskley and Brian Bernardi all now eligible along with returning players Dion Nesmith and Jamall Robinson.  So Jenkins returned home to New Jersey and will be eligible for the Highlanders next season.

Entering this season, the Highlanders were still in search of a home.  To impress possible conference suitors, Coach Engles and his staff did their best to schedule tough teams.  They were able to play road games against St John's, Duquesne, Marquette, Michigan, Holy Cross, Villanova and South Alabama among other Division I schools.   In fact, they only have four games against non Division I schools.

And the Highlanders have stepped up to the challenge.  After losing to St John's, they barely lost at Marquette by five points, 62-57, after being up at halftime.   Then they won at A-10 member Duquesne 83-81.  

Then this past Saturday, the Highlanders got their biggest win in the history of their program. NJIT went up to Ann Arbor and knocked off #17 Michigan 63-61.   They hit on eleven of seventeen three pointers.  Sophomore guard Damon Lynn led the way with twenty points.

The Highlanders became instant celebrities with wins over Michigan.  Stories came out about how NJIT is the lone Division I independent and how they play in a small 1500 seat gym, while Michigan had a $52 million renovation in their arena, complete with a waterfall. In fact, as Adam Zagoria points out,  the NJIT bookstore is receiving a lot of orders for NJIT gear from Michigan State, Ohio State, Indiana and other Big Ten fans just so they can razz Michigan when they play them.

Even though this season is far from over, the Highlanders will be even better next season.  Their top three scorers, Lynn, Ky Howard and Winfield Willis all return next season.  Plus they will be adding the three point threat in Jenkins.  The future only looks brighter for NJIT.  

Now if they could only find a conference to call home.  Coach Engles pleaded his case after the win over Michigan.
"We're doing everything we need to do to get in a league. I would like to be in a conference. My kids deserve it. We shouldn't be the only independent in the country. We're not Notre Dame football. I don't understand why someone in the NCAA -- or someone -- hasn't taken more of an active role in this. We have Division I athletes. We've gone through the reclassification process. We've done everything the NCAA has asked us. ... We need to be involved with everyone else."
NJIT continued their winning ways last night at home, at the Estelle and Zoom Fleisher Athletic Center in Newark New Jersey, the aforementioned 1500 seat gym with a sauna and two weight rooms.  They rallied from behind to defeat St Francis NY 66-64.   Lynn scored twenty two points in the victory.   The students stormed the court after the 4-5 Highlanders' second win in a row.  Considering they hadn't beat the Terriers in the past four years, a court storming for an independent team with no home is okay in my book.

For the Connor MacLeod of Divison I college basketball, Coach Engles and his Highlanders are tired of "There can be only one", as far as their independent status is concerned.  They want a conference to call home and they deserve one.

You know America East, ten is a nice round number.  Make NJIT the tenth America East school.

PS - Coach Engles is one of the few Division I basketball coaches who follows me on Twitter ( IO follow him as well) and has for several years.  I greatly appreciate that and I am very happy for the success he has had with his team.  I hope he finds a conference home for his Highlanders very soon.  That conference will be much better off having his team and someone of Coach Engles' character.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Finding Our Religion (Recap of Hofstra vs. Appalachian State)

It was about 9:45 AM yesterday, on a crisp Sunday morning in Columbia, South Carolina when Matthew, aka my nine year old color analyst, and I set out on our journey.  As I drove our 2008 Honda CRV down Forest Drive heading towards the ramp for I-77 North to Charlotte, we came up on the intersection of Shandon Baptist Church, where Matthew plays for their Upward Bound 4th grade basketball team.   A Columbia City Police Officer was in the role of crossing guard, stopping traffic to allow the church's congregation members to turn left into the long church entrance for 10:00 AM mass.

After about thirty seconds, she let traffic, which included us, to go through.   For those entering Shandon Baptist Church on a beautiful Sunday, they were about to get their religion.   On this day, two Lutherans, one baptized (Matthew) and one confirmed (me), were going to find our other religion.  Our religion this Sunday was a Hofstra college basketball game, which was three hours away in Boone, North Carolina.

It all started on my birthday on February 15, 2011.  I had been a long time season ticket holder for Hofstra and my blog, the College Hardwood was in the midst of its sixth season.  But until that day, which happened to be my birthday, Matthew had never gone to a Hofstra basketball game.

Finally, as a birthday present to me, Matthew joined me for the game between William and Mary and Hofstra at the Mack Arena.   And what a game it was!  This was the famous game where Charles Jenkins had not one, BUT TWO buzzer beaters; one to force overtime and one to win the game in overtime.   The shots made Sportscenter that night and are permanently, well hopefully permanently, up on a Hofstra video on YouTube.

That day, which I chronicled in one of my favorite all time articles on my blog, forever changed Matthew.  Matthew not only became a die-hard college basketball fan, but a lover of basketball in general.  If Matthew isn't playing baseball, his first love, he often has a basketball in his hand.  And come January, he will play in organized basketball games for the first time in his life.

During the 2011-12 season, where I covered fifty nine Division I games for the Mid Majority as well as my site, Matthew was my frequent companion.   He truly was my color analyst for thirty three games during that season.  Matthew was even the subject of one my articles that season, as I featured the Binghamton-Hofstra game around his view of a college basketball game.

When we finally moved down to Columbia, South Carolina in February 2013 as a family, after I had been in Columbia for sixth months already, one thing that changed was no longer seeing Hofstra on a regular basis.   Matthew and I would see them when we were up in New York to visit, including last season, when they defeated NJIT at the Mack Center.  Yes, the same NJIT team that defeated #17 Michigan in Ann Arbor on Saturday.

But as the ever observant Matthew pointed out to me, this was the first time we would see Hofstra outside of being in New York.   This was something I took for granted all the years I made road trips to Drexel, Towson, Delaware and of course, to Richmond for the CAA Tournament, among many other places to see Hofstra college basketball games.

Appalachian State, Hofstra's opponent on Sunday, is located in Boone, North Carolina, which is a three hour trip from Columbia.   Boone is located in the Blue Ridge Mountains and is about 3300 feet above sea level.   To get to Appalachian State from Columbia, basically you take I-77 North to I-485 West, to I-85 South and then NC Route 321.

Route 321 takes you from Gastonia, through Hickory, Lenoir, scenic Blowing Rock and finally to our destination, Boone.    Along the way you will find a lot of local North Carolina furniture stores, antiques, general stores and trading posts and a huge gem and fossil shop.  Route 321, especially towards Blowing Rock and Boone, is a very windy, scenic road as you cut through the mountains and also leads to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

You will also find on Route 321 Tweetsie Railroad and Wild West Theme Park, one of the first theme parks in the United States.   The 200 acre theme park is open between April and October and features two vintage steam locomotives, which you can take on a 3 mile ride.   The park first opened in 1957.

As I noted previously, on the way to Appalachian State, you also pass through Blowing Rock, a very scenic town, which features "The Blowing Rock",   The Blowing Rock is "an immense cliff" that's 4000 feet above sea level and where if you stand on the cliff and throw out a light object over the gorge below, the winds will actually blow the object back to you.  Blowing Rock holds several festivals a year, including Winterfest on January 25 and 26,

We reached Boone around 12:45 PM.   It's a town of about 17,000 people, which about matches the student population of Appalachian State.  Appalachian State University was formed in 1899 and sits on 1300 acres of land.

The impressive Holmes Convocation Center stands at the entrance to the university,   It's an 8500 seat all purpose arena that opened in November, 2000 with a basketball game between North Carolina and Appalachian State.    The school's colors are gold and black and the inside of the arena holds true to their school colors.  If you are a Steelers fan, this is the arena for you.

I parked the CRV in a parking garage on Rivers Street, a five minute walk from the Holmes Dome, as it is affectionately called.  When we got to the Northwest entrance, we found several Hofstra fans had made the trip, including three recent Hofstra alums that worked at WRHU and now live in  Winston Salem and Durham, North Carolina.   They knew me from my tweets with Defiantly Dutch, aka Jerry Beach.

The helpful Mountaineers' staff saw us all congregated and said that the will call tickets were located on the Southeast entrance, which was a short walk from our current location.   We made the walk to the Will Call entrance and picked up our tickets, then said our goodbyes to each other as we hoped the game would be worth the trip.   Matthew and I then made a short walk down to our seats in Lower Section Nine.

The tickets were left to me by Appalachian State Head Coach Jim Fox.   Jim's brother, Jeff played on the last two Hofstra basketball teams to make the NCAA Tournament in 2000 and 2001.   I am friends with Jeff from his student days at Hofstra Law School, where I used to work.  

Jim Fox is in his first season as Head Coach of the Mountaineers.  Previously, Coach Fox was the Associate Head Coach for Davidson College under Head Coach Bob McKillop.   He was on the coaching staff of Davidson since 2001 and was responsible for recruiting and player development, including one Stephen Curry.  Prior to that, Fox was the associate head coach of St Dominic's in Oyster Bay and the head coach of the AAU Long Island Lightning team.  One of his players was Matt McKillop, Bob's son, who went on to play at Davidson and is now an assistant coach.

After losing their first two games, the Mountaineers had won three straight games in a row, including an upset win at Virginia Tech.   I figured I would see the classic Davidson offense, which prides itself on player and  ball movement.  Having seen several Davidson games in the past two years, I truly appreciate their style of play.

I was also looking forward to seeing the Hofstra team for the first time live this season.  I had followed the Pride on the live streams from the Hofstra Website, including their most recent fourteen point win over Norfolk State, as well as their two games on WatchESPN.   They have an exciting brand of offense and between Coach Fox's style of play and Coach Joe Mihalich's style of play,  Matthew and I expected a high scoring game.

Well, what we got was somewhat different, but nevertheless fun.

Due to injuries to Rokas Gustys and Moussa Kone, the Pride were down to only two big men, Andre Walker and Malik Nichols.   And with the Mountaineers having at least five players that were six foot seven or taller, Hofstra was going to have to work really hard at keeping Appalachian State off the glass.

And the game started right out with one of the Mountaineers big men, Tommy Spagnolo grabbing an offensive rebound and getting fouled on the putback attempt by Walker.  Spagnolo hit one of two free throws to give Appalachian State the early lead.   The Pride would score seven of the next ten points however, as Juan'ya Green nailed a three pointer to give the Pride a 7-3 lead.

The Mountaineers would score the next five straight points as Tab Hamilton's three gave App State an 8-7 lead.  But the Pride would reel off a 12-2 run over the next four plus minutes.  Jamall Robinson's three pointer gave the Pride a 19-10 lead with about ten minutes left in the half.

What was impressing me about Hofstra was not the offense, though the Pride were fine on that end for the first ten minutes.  But it was their defense that was very solid throughout the game.  Appalachian State, with their Davidson style, constant ball and player movement offense, made the Hofstra players really work on defense.  But the Pride were equal to the challenge, forcing three turnovers in that span.

Basketball is a game of runs and it stood to reason that the Mountaineers would respond.  And they did with an 8-0 spurt.  Frank Eaves, Appalachian State's leading scorer on the season, would hit one of two free throws to cut the deficit to one, 19-18.

Hofstra would have a spurt of their own, First, Matthew called Brian Bernardi's three pointer to put the Pride up four.   Hofstra would end up outscoring App State 8-2 as Ameen Tanksley continued his torrid three point shooting on the season with another bomb from beyond the arc to make it 27-20.  The Pride had several chances to extend the lead but failed for the most part.   As a result, the Mountaineers behind Eaves, chipped away at the lead and were only down 29-26 at the half.

After Bernardi nailed another three to put Hofstra up six, 32-26, Appalachian State made a concerted effort to use their size to their advantage. Spagnolo and Griffin Kinney dominated the smaller Pride lineup over the next three minutes, either scoring or grabbing offensive rebounds at will.  They combined for all nine of the Mountaineers' points in that span, with Spagnolo putting Appalachian State ahead 35-34.

Neither team would score for the next three minutes in what became a defensive struggle.  Finally, Nichols, who is a very explosive player, scored on a layup to give Hofstra the lead back at 36-35. Jacob Lawson would give Appalachian State the lead back on a dunk, 37-36.

The Pride would regain the lead, but they would be hampered by their one negative constant on the season; free throw shooting.   Over the next two minutes, Tanksley and Nichols would combine to miss on all four of their free throw attempts.   What could have been a nine point lead, was only a five point lead, 42-37, after Nichols hit another layup.

The Mountaineers took advantage and trimmed the lead back to two, 44-42 on a Jake Babic three pointer.   Off a Bernardi missed three point attempt, Appalachian State had a chance to tie but missed a layup with 7:32 left.  That would be as close as the Mountaineers would get the rest of the game.

Over the next three and a half minutes, Hofstra would outscore Appalachian State 10-2.  They did this by attacking the basket, either by scoring layups or getting fouled.  This time, the Pride would hit four of their five free throws; two by Tanksley, two by Green.  Tanksley's layup and one gave Hofstra a 54-44 lead with just under four minutes left in the game. Tanksley would miss on the free throw for the three point play, but the damage was done.

From there, the Mountaineers would only score seven more points in the game, five of which came on free throws as the Pride clamped down on them.  With a little over three minutes left, Green did a three sixty spin move in the lane for a layup.  Words could not do that layup justice.  The Pride would also hit ten straight free throws in a row and went on to win 68-51, in a game that was closer than the final score appeared.

The Pride showed nice balance on offense, with five players in double figures scoring.   Green led the way with seventeen points, while Tanksley added thirteen.  Dion Nesmith came off the bench to score eleven points while Bernardi and Nichols each had ten.  What was really impressive was the Pride had twelve assists and only four turnovers, while forcing fifteen Mountaineers' turnovers.

Eaves was the only double figure scorer for Appalachian State, scoring thirteen points, including seven of eight from three free throw line.  Eaves is 47 of 56 from the line on the season, shooting 84 percent from the line.  Over his last five games, Eaves has had fifty four free throw attempts, over ten a game.

What hurt Appalachian State was the Mountaineers shooting 3 of 17 from beyond the arc.  For a Davidson type offense to succeed, there must be solid three point shooting.   Coach Fox didn't get it from his team on Sunday and thus struggled offensively.   But I am confident over time, his team will succeed as they get used to that style of play.

Matthew and I headed home.  We wished we had more time to explore the Blowing Rock/Boone area. But it was a Sunday evening and Matthew had school on Monday.   As a result, our dinner was an Arby's along the way on Route 301, not the local establishment I was hoping we would dine at in Boone.

But Hofstra won and it turned out to be another successful road trip and now I know a little more about western North Carolina.    Our next opportunity to see Hofstra is back in New York on December 23 when we are visiting family on Long Island for the holidays starting that prior weekend.  The Pride play the Explorers of LaSalle at the Mack Center in what should be another fun contest.

This time we will have a much shorter trip from Levittown to Hempstead to find our religion.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Staley Wins 300th Career Game as Gamecocks Defeat 49ers

Entering last night's contest with Charlotte, Dawn Staley had 299 career wins as a head coach, 127 of which had come at the University of South Carolina.    There was little doubt that she would get her milestone Thursday evening at Colonial Life Arena as her #1 ranked team faced a 49ers team that entered the contest having lost five straight games.  The surprise came in the effort of Charlotte.

As per usual, the Gamecocks wanted to use their height advantage and looked to score inside right from the tip-off.  Center Ibiam Elem was fouled in the act of shooting and hit her two free throws for the first two points of the game.  The 49ers responded with an unusual game plan, go inside on the taller Gamecocks front line,  Charlotte forward Olivia Rankin, a player who only averages four points per game, matched her season average quickly with two straight baskets off post plays and the 49ers took a 4-2 lead.

South Carolina responded with six straight points.  Elem was responsible for four of those points and her jumper, which gave her six early points, put the Gamecocks up 8-4.   The Gamecocks would slowly extend the lead to five, 16-11 on an A'ja Wilson jumper with about fourteen minutes left in the half.

Charlotte answered back, outscoring South Carolina 8-2 over the next two minutes.  The 49ers leading scorer on the season, Lefty Webster would score six of the eight 49ers points in that spurt.  Her jumper gave Charlotte a 19-18 lead.

South Carolina tied the game on an Alaina Coates free throw, then regained the lead for good with a Tina Roy three pointer.   The Gamecocks would extend their lead to five, 26-21 on two more free throws by Coates.   However, Charlotte refused to go away as their second leading scorer on the season, Hilary Sigmon nailed a three pointer and with about seven and a half minutes left in the first half, the score was 26-24 South Carolina.

For twelve and a half minutes, the Gamecocks were in a battle with the 49ers.  But as shown throughout the season, South Carolina was capable of huge runs at any time.  The time finally came with 7:38 left in the half.

The Gamecocks would outscore the 49ers 20-2 over the next seven minutes and 37 seconds. Tiffany Mitchell, the SEC Player of the Year and Gamecocks' leading scorer, would score seven of those points, including at three pointer to make the score 44-26.  The run was highlighted though by a sweet no-look pass from Bianca Cuevas to Wilson for a layup.  Coates would cap the run with a layup to make the score 46-26.

But just as it looked like the Gamecocks would enter the locker room up twenty at the half, Cuevas inexplicably fouled Charlotte's Ayanna Holmes.  Holmes would hit two free throws and we went to the half with South Carolina up 46-28.

At the start of the second half, everyone figured that the Gamecocks would continue right where they left off from at the end of the first half and put the 49ers away.  Charlotte had other ideas.

The 49ers would hit on all of their first six field goal attempts in the second half.   Webster, who was a thorn in the Gamecocks' side the entire game, nailed another jumper to cut the Gamecocks lead to thirteen, 55-42 with fifteen minutes left in the half.   A team that had lost five straight games and had lost their most recent game in a tournament in Mexico to Princeton by thirty points, was fighting tooth and nail with the #1 team in the country for twenty five minutes.

But the height differential between the 49ers and the Gamecocks proved to be too much in the end. Despite their early second half offensive flurry, Charlotte could not keep South Carolina from scoring inside.  Eventually the Gamecocks started pulling away, going up by as many as twenty five points several times, the last being 82-57 before Charlotte scored the last four points to make the final 82-61 and give Staley her 300th career game.

The Gamecocks again showed the balanced scoring that is going to make them very difficult to beat this season.  Six players scored between nine and seventeen points for the Gamecocks.  The freshman Wilson led the way with seventeen points off the bench and Coates came off the bench as well to score fifteen points, The Gamecocks had a 41-8 advantage on bench points. Ibiam scored sixteen points and Welch had ten points, as South Carolina outscored Charlotte 46-20 in the paint. Mitchell and Tina Roy each had nine points for the Gamecocks, who shot fifty five percent from the field.

Charlotte, a WNIT team last season, had to be proud of the fact that they had the highest field goal percentage of any team that has faced South Carolina this season.  The 49ers shot forty five percent from the field for the game and fifty four percent from the field in the second half.  No team had shot higher than thirty eight percent against the Gamecocks coming into the game.  Webster led the 49ers with seventeen points and Sigmon, who was a perfect 3 for 3 from beyond the arc, added thirteen points.

South Carolina now faces their most difficult road game of the season, a matchup with #8 Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium on the campus of Duke.  Having been there two years ago for an Iona -Duke women's basketball game, I can tell you that place will be really loud on Sunday.   But if the Gamecocks show the balance they did last night and get good three point shooting from Mitchell and Roy,  South Carolina will get Staley her 301st victory.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

South Carolina Defense Suffocates North Carolina Central in 90-26 Win

Much to my chagrin, due to my Little League Baseball coaching and board member duties, I was unable to make the first three South Carolina Women's Basketball games.  But fall baseball finally ended and my color analyst, aka my older son Matthew, and I were able to see the Gamecocks take on the Eagles of North Carolina Central last night at Colonial Life Arena.

South Carolina entered the game as the #1 team in the nation, undefeated at 5-0.  Their latest win was also their toughest contest to date, a 67-63 win over #22 Syracuse in the championship game of  the Junkanoo Jam Tournament in the Bahamas.  The Orange shot thirty eight percent, which mind you is a low field goal percentage.  Still, that was the first time all season the Gamecocks allowed a team to shoot over thirty three percent from the field.  And all the teams that South Carolina defeated entering last night's game were from power or high major conferences - USC (Pac-12), Clemson (ACC), San Diego State (Mountain West), Wisconsin (Big 10) and Syracuse (ACC).

Thus entering Monday night's game against South Carolina, North Carolina Central, A MEAC school that entered the game at 2-3, had a really tall task ahead of them.  It was especially a tall task, considering the Gamecocks had four players six foot four or taller.  And that height played a big part in suffocating the Eagles all night.

It was quickly apparent from tipoff that NCCU was going to have a hard time scoring on the night.  The Eagles won the tip but struggled to get a shot off as the shot clock expired.  The Gamecocks quickly gathered the rebound and Alegisha Welch scored on a fast break layup.   Again on their next possession, North Carolina Central struggled to get a decent shot off.  Again the Gamecocks rebounded and Tiffany Mitchell scored on a fast break layup.   Rinse, lather, repeat.

At the first media timeout, the score was 14-3.   The Gamecocks would add another eight points, capped by an A'ja Wilson three point play.  The six foot five lefty freshman has the quickness of a guard and a fan behind me described her as a young female version of Bill Russell with the way she moves in the paint.  I thought it was a pretty good description of Wilson's skills.   South Carolina was up 22-3 before you could bat an eye.

It was here that NCCU made a smart move and went to a zone, packing their players in on the South Carolina bigs.  Instead of moving the ball to open shooters, the Gamecocks continued to try to work the ball inside, forcing passes to covered frontcourt players, resulting in turnovers.   It allowed the Eagles to outscore the Gamecocks 12-7 over the next four minutes.  The Eagles were now only down fourteen, 29-15 with 5:17 left in the half.

But that's as close as the NCCU would get the rest of the way.  South Carolina would outscore them 10-1 the rest of the half.  The Gamecocks would enter the half leading 39-16 as they finally hit a three pointer from the outside, with Asia Dozier doing the damage.  

After a halftime show that included Cocky leading a large group of kids in The Chicken Dance, the Gamecocks' Mitchell came out and showed light feet of her own.  On the first two Eagles possessions, she stole the ball.  One led to a layup by Mitchell, the other a three point play by Welch.  South Carolina was quickly up 44-16.  

From there, the rout was on.  The Gamecocks stepped up their game on both ends of the court.  South Carolina, which attempted only three three pointers in the first half,  went four for ten from beyond the arc in the second half.  The Gamecocks need to do this so that teams won't pack their zone in on the South Carolina bigs.

Meanwhile, NCCU was held to ten total points in the second half.   When the Eagles had the ball, if it wasn't stolen, it was blocked.  If the shot wasn't blocked, the shot was altered.   North Carolina Central just struggled to get any decent shots off on the evening.  With ten minutes left, the Gamecocks were already up forty, 63-23 and the Eagles would only score three more points in the game.

All that was left was for Coach Dawn Staley to play everyone on her bench, which she did.  All fourteen Gamecocks players played at least two minutes, with twelve of her players playing six minutes or more.  South Carolina would go on to the 90-26 victory.  It was the third time this season the Gamecocks won by fifty or more points; they defeated Clemson by fifty eight points and San Diego State by fifty one points. 

South Carolina shot sixty percent from the field and had five players in double figures scoring.  Wilson came off the bench to lead all scorers with sixteen points.  She would have had over twenty points easily had she hit a few open shots in the paint.  Dozier and Mitchell each had fourteen points.   Welch added eleven points and Elem Ibiam had ten points.  The Gamecocks had twenty three assists.  Khadijah Sessions had eight assists on the night, while Bianca Cuevas had five assists.  

Despite the solid scoring numbers, it was the defensive statistics that were really impressive.  The Eagles only had seven assists while committing twenty eight turnovers, twenty one of which came on steals by the Gamecocks.  Mitchell had seven steals alone for South Carolina, while Sessions had four steals and Cuevas had three steals and two blocks.  The Gamecocks had eight blocks in the game.  NCCU shot only twenty two percent from the field and were outrebounded 40-23.

The Gamecocks return to action with another home game Thursday night against Charlotte, a team that has lost five straight games after winning their first game.  Add to the fact that the Charlotte men's team defeated the South Carolina men's team in the Charleston Classic about ten days ago and things don't bode well for the 49ers.   

Especially facing this defensive juggernaut in the Gamecocks.

Friday, November 28, 2014

A Balanced South Carolina Bounces Back With Win over UNC Asheville

South Carolina appeared to have a good opportunity for success in the Charleston Classic Tournament.  They handily won their first game over Cornell 69-45.  In the second game, they were up twelve on Charlotte, 30-18 in the first half and seemed to be on their way to the championship game.   But it went all downhill from there.

Charlotte rallied from that deficit and took the lead late in the second half.  The Gamecocks rallied to tie the game at 63 with a little less than two minutes left in the game and had a chance to take the lead. The 49ers made two free throws and held off the Gamecocks 65-63. 

Then South Carolina faced Akron in the third place game, a team the Gamecocks handily beat twice last season; a ten point win in the Diamond Head classic and a thirty point regular season game blowout a few days later.  This time was different.  The Zips controlled most of the game, even going up by twelve points early in the second half.  South Carolina rallied to tie the game late but eventually lost to Akron 68-63.

Thus the Gamecocks came home with a losing record from Charleston, 2-3 on the season.  They were hoping Wednesday night that the Bulldogs of UNC Asheville would be the cure to their ailing woes, specifically in the three point shooting department.  In their losses to Charlotte and Akron, South Carolina shot a combined five of twenty eight from beyond the arc (eighteen percent).   However, the Gamecocks would have to play the Bulldogs without their starting forward Michael Carrera who suffered a concussion and a sprained ankle in practice during the week.

Since it was Thanksgiving Eve, which is what many call the biggest night out of the year, and students were off on break,  the Colonial Life Arena was not as filled as usual.  In fact, it was the smallest crowd of the men's or women's basketball seasons so far, with 8223 only in attendance.  Three of those people in attendance were my friend Ian McCormick, veteran Mid Majority writer, who sat with my color analyst, aka my older son Matthew and me.

Those in attendance saw the Gamecocks continue their struggles early on, as the Bulldogs came out firing, well more specifically, Andrew Rowsey came out firing.   Rowsey scored eight quick points, two on three pointers and he assisted on a three pointer by Kem Ubaru.  UNC Asheville was up 12-6 a little more than five minutes into the contest.

This was not the first time I had seen the sophomore Rowsey (#15 in the pictures) play in person.   Last season, I watched Rowsey light up the College of Charleston at TD Arena, as he lead his team to a 67-58 overtime victory over the Cougars.  Rowsey scored twenty three points on eight of eleven shooting, including three from beyond the arc.  Rowsey is an exciting player to watch.  He is quick, has incredibly long range, very accurate shooter (shoots forty six percent from three ) and is not shy about launching a three.

The Gamecocks would respond with a 7-1 mini spurt to tie the game at thirteen.  The Gamecocks tied the game on a three pointer by Justin McKie, a sophomore who has worked his way into the rotation with his solid play.  

After Ubaru put the Bulldogs back up one, 14-13, hitting one of his two free throw attempts, South Carolina would again go on a spurt, this time a 14-0 run over nearly four minutes.  Freshman Marcus Stroman would cap the rally with a layup that resulted in a three point play.  Stroman's free throw gave the Gamecocks a 27-14 lead. 

However, the Bulldogs would respond, again led by Rowsey and a couple of turnovers by Stroman.  Rowsey's two three pointers would ignite an 11-3 UNC Asheville run.  Rowsey's fourth three pointer on the day made the score 30-25 South Carolina with 6:43 left.    The Gamecocks would extend the lead a little going into halftime, 37-29.

The first half was somewhat sloppy, as both teams combined for sixteen turnovers.  As for the Gamecocks, that meant Frank Martin was particularly unhappy on the night.  And unfortunately for South Carolina, the sloppy play would continue into the second half, making Coach Martin REALLY unhappy.

After Tyrone Johnson hit a layup to extend the Gamecocks' lead to ten, 39-29, the Bulldogs responded with five points as Rowsey assisted again on a Ubaru three pointer, then hit a layup of his own to make the score 39-34.  

Then the turnover fest really went into high gear.  Over the first six minutes of the second half, both teams combined for eight turnovers.  This allowed UNC Asheville to hang around in the game.  After hitting another three pointer, his fifth of the game, Rowsey hit two free throws to keep the Bulldogs within ten, 53-43.

But with about twelve and half minutes left in the game, Rowsey was then called for an offensive foul, his fourth.  Rowsey, who had twenty three points at the time,  was forced to go to the bench.  Once Rowsey left the game, UNC Asheville was done.

The Gamecocks took advantage, outscoring the Bulldogs 19-9 over the next seven minutes. This included a span of three plus minutes where the Bulldogs didn't score a point.  A Sindarius Thornwell dunk gave South Carolina a 72-52 lead with a little under six minutes left in the game.

Rowsey would re-enter the game and cut the lead to fourteen, 72-58 with his sixth three pointer of the game.  But the damage had already been done and the Bulldogs would not get closer the rest of the game.   In a high scoring second half, where both teams would combine for nearly one hundred points, the Gamecocks would go on for the 89-75 win.  

Despite the twenty turnovers on the game, there were some bright spots for South Carolina.   The team did have twenty one assists, six by Stroman and six by Thornwell.  The Gamecocks shot eight of seventeen from beyond the arc.  And there was a concerted effort to have balanced scoring, especially working the ball into the USC bigs.  Chatkevicus scored a career high seventeen points and had his first career double double with thirteen rebounds, shooting six of eleven from the field.   He also buried two three pointers, also the first two of his career.

Demetrius Henry had fifteen points on six of eleven shooting.  The Carolina bigs combined to shoot fourteen of twenty six from the field.   Tyrone Johnson, Thornwell and Duane Notice each had twelve points as all five starters scored in double figures.  McKie chipped in with eight points in only thirteen minutes of action.  Finally, USC shot nineteen of twenty six from the charity stripe.

Rowsey led all scorers with thirty points on ten of eighteen shooting from the field, including six of twelve from beyond the arc.  David Robertson was the only other Bulldog in double figures with fifteen as he hit five of nine shots from beyond the arc.   The rest of UNC Asheville shot an unseemly eight of thirty five from the field (twenty three percent).  Ubaru particularly had a rough night shooting two of eleven from the field, though he hit both of his three point attempts.

The Gamecocks next game is on the road vs. Marshall Sunday, December 1st.  It will be USC's first real road game of the season.  In fact it will be their first game outside the state of South Carolina after three home games and three neutral site games in Charleston.  This will be a good test for the Gamecocks as the Thundering Herd are in the top twenty five in the country in rebounding and assists.    South Carolina will again need balance and better ball handling to prevail.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Post Play the Difference as Bears Hold Off Gamecocks

Heading into Tuesday's Tipoff Marathon game against Baylor, South Carolina was looking for payback for a tough two point loss, 66-64 at the Bears' home court last season.   They certainly looked strong entering the contest, as they started their opening season with an 81-56 win over the Ospreys of North Florida last Friday night.  The Gamecocks had momentum, the home court advantage and revenge on their side for the nationally televised noon start on ESPN, which for many people in attendance was a long lunch break.

The problem was that they didn't have the frontcourt on their side to handle Baylor.

The Bears started out quickly with five straight points as Jonathan Motley, who would be a load inside all day for Baylor, scored the first two points of the game.   The Gamecocks would respond by outscoring the Bears 9-2 over the next four plus minutes.  Sindarius Thornwell's two free throws put South Carolina up 9-7.

The mini-spurts for both teams would continue throughout the first half.  After the Bears broke an eleven all tie with five straight points, the Gamecocks responded with seven straight of their own to take an 18-16 lead on a basket by Thornwell.

The Gamecocks would go up by as much as four points, 22-18.  But they would commit four turnovers in the last five and a half minutes of the first  half.  Baylor took advantage of this, outscoring South Carolina 12-5.  Motley again would be a difference maker, scoring a basket with two seconds left in the half to put the Bears up 30-27 at the halftime.

My good friend, Gary Bennett who, along with another good friend  of ours, Charley Adams, sat with me during the game.  Gary made the point that the South Carolina bigs barely had any post touches in the first half.   In fact in the first half, the South Carolina frontcourt scored only four points in the first half; two points on a tip in by Laimonas Chatkevicius of his own miss and two points on free throws by Michael Carrera.  Meanwhile, Motley by himself scored 13 points in the first twenty minutes.

During halftime, I went to see my good friend Mike Brodsky, known as @NUHF on Twitter, who came down from Boston for the game (and is somewhere having crab legs as he celebrates Northeastern's win over Florida State).  He was sitting with former Northeastern forward Kauri Black, who is going to South Carolina for his Masters.  Mike and I caught up on life, then messed with Defiantly Dutch's head by having Kauri take a picture of the Barone Bowl Buddies and posting it on Twitter.

The second half started with Frank Martin seemingly getting the memo from Gary Bennett to work the ball inside.  Carrera scored the first two Gamecock baskets on layups and South Carolina was within one, 32-31.  A little bit later, a Thornwell three pointer put the Gamecocks up one, 36-35 with a little under seventeen minutes left in the game.

It was the last lead South Carolina had on the day.  If Motley was not being a load inside for the Bears, it was Kenny Chery frustrating the Gamecocks from beyond the arc.   Chery's three pointer, one of three on the day for him, put the Bears up 38-36.   It was the start of a critical 15-6 run over the next four minutes.  A Taurean Prince three pointer capped the run and gave the Bears a 50-42 lead with 12:20 left.

The lead would still be eight, 57-49 with 7:44 left when Marcus Stroman nailed a three pointer to cut the deficit to five, 57-52.  The freshman Stroman would have another solid game for the Gamecocks, scoring ten points, grabbing five rebounds and adding three assists with only one turnover in twenty seven minutes of play.

Tyrone Johnson, who led all scorers with twenty one points, added a jumper and the lead was down to three, 57-54.  But the Baylor duo that had caused problems for South Carolina all day, Motley and Chery, would combine to score the game's next seven points and the Bears lead was now ten, 64-54 with about four minutes left.

The Gamecocks made one last run, scoring seven straight points.  A Stroman tip in cut the deficit to three, 64-61 with about two and a half minutes left.  Then South Carolina had a chance to tie, but Tyrone Johnson missed an open three pointer.   A Motley tip in off a rebound would be the final dagger, giving the Bears a 66-61 lead.

The Gamecocks would get as close as two the rest of the way, 67-65 on a Johnson layup with two seconds left.  But South Carolina could not steal the inbounds pass and was forced to foul Chery.  Chery scored the last of his twenty points, hitting two free throws for the 69-65 final score.

Johnson, Thornwell and Stroman combined for forty seven points on seventeen of thirty four from the field.  The problem was the rest of the Gamecocks shot five of twenty from the field.  The Baylor frontcourt outscored the South Carolina frontcourt 37-18.  Motley had seventeen of those points for the Bears, shooting six of nine from the field and hitting all five of his free throws.  Carrera had ten of the eighteen Gamecocks' frontcourt points.

As Gary, Charlie and I left Colonial Life Arena and headed back to our jobs at USC, we lamented the fact that the Gamecocks got little scoring from their forwards.  The bright side is that South Carolina has a terrific guard trio in Thornwell, Johnson and Stroman.   But the Gamecocks need to get their post players more involved.

The bright side is that this weekend's Charleston Classic will give South Carolina three opportunities to improve on that.