Sunday, November 28, 2010

Four Games in 25 Hours - Part III - Iona Women Get Their First Win of the Season

Iona Women's Basketball Coach Tony Bozzella has always believed in a tough non conference schedule to start the season. Last season, the Lady Gaels played the likes of national champion UConn, Big East power Notre Dame, Arizona and Arkansas.  After going through a gauntlet like that, Iona was 3-7.  But the tough schedule prepared them for conference play, which resulted in a second place finish in the MAAC and a WNIT berth for the third time in four seasons.

This season is no exception.  The Lady Gaels have already played the likes of Charlotte and Central Florida, and have upcoming games at Marquette, Michigan State and Arizona.  Not a schedule for the faint of heart.   And so far, Iona has struggled with an 0-3 start.

But there is nothing like home cooking and the Lady Gaels were hosting the Thanksgiving Classic.  While Toledo defeated UMBC in the first game, Iona played Brown in the second game.   After being stuck in traffic on the Hutchinson River Parkway,  I got to the Hynes Center unscathed, unlike almost a year ago, in time for the start of the game.

As I sat in my customary seat, three rows behind the Iona bench next to Tony's wonderful wife Maria and his two great kids Joey and Samantha, I noticed some familiar faces that were now Iona coaches.  Former Lady Gaels stars Thazina Cook and Lauren DeFalco, two important members of past successful teams, were now first year coaches for the Lady Gaels.

This is not an uncommon site when watching Iona women's games over the years.  Other former Iona players such as Toni Horvath and Jessica Anger were past coaches under Bozzella.  And Mandy Myers, a former player for Bozzella at LIU Brooklyn had been a member of the coaching staff for many years.  Finally, Associate Head Coach Christi Abbate has been with Bozzella for thirteen years, going back to the days when Bozzella had his first head coaching job at Southampton University.  Abbate was an assistant coach when Bozzella was the head coach of an LIU team that went to the NCAA Tournament in 2001.

Before tipoff, I found out that the Lady Gaels had been without one of their best players from last season, Diana Hubbard, due to concussion.   She suffered the concussion during an exhibition game and was missing her fourth straight game.  Hubbard was their top reserve from last season and should be a starter when she returns.  The Lady Gaels already were returning three of their five starters from last season in forward Kristina Ford, forward Anda Ivkovic and point guard Suzi Fregosi.

Iona was taking on a Brown team with a coach, Jean Marie Burr, with a 23 year history of coaching successful Bears' teams.  Brown had just come off an impressive road win at New Hampshire.  So this promised to be a competitive game.

And sure enough, Brown came out quickly and led 7-1 with 16:43 left.  It was evident early that Iona was struggling from the field.  The Lady Gaels missed their first nine shots until sophomore Samantha Kopp hit a layup to cut the lead to 7-3 with 13:19 left in the first half.  Brown maintained a lead, 21-13 with 8:43 left in the first half as Brown's Lindsay Nickel started finding the basket, scoring eight of Brown's 21 points.

But Nickel wasn't the only one finding the basket.  Iona's Ivkovic started scoring as well.   Only eight months removed from an ACL injury that ended her 2009-10 season early, Ivkovic was wearing a heavy knee brace. But it didn't affect her mobility or her shooting touch.  Ivkovic would score twelve points over the last eight minutes of the first half and the Gaels cut the Bears' lead to five, 28-23 at halftime.

Considering the Gaels had shot 7 of 28 from the field, including 2 of 12 from beyond the arc, it was amazing that it was only a five point half time deficit.   That was including the Gaels' Ford, their third leading scorer from last season, going scoreless for the entire half.    What kept Iona in the game was good defense as they limited the Bears to 33 percent from the field.  However, the Gaels needed to improve on their free throw shooting.  Despite having nearly three times as many free throw attempts, fourteen to Brown's five, Iona only hit seven of their free throw attempts.

Basketball games are often tales of two halves.  And this game was no exception.  The first half was a low scoring affair with two teams struggling from the field.  The second half would end up being at the other end of the spectrum.  And someone who really struggled in the first half would have a monster second half.

After going scoreless for twenty minutes, Ford would hit a layup and a three pointer in the first 37 seconds of the second half to tie the game at 28.  Ivkovic would follow with another layup and Iona had their first lead of the game, 30-28 with 17:30 left.   Gaels guard Marissa Flagg, who would end up having a terrific game, followed with another layup and the Gaels had now an 11-0 run over two halves to go up 32-28.

But Brown would respond with a run of their own.  Nickel, Sheila Dixon and Hannah Passafuime would combine to score all their team's points during a Bears 13-2 run and Brown was back up 41-34 with 12:58 left in the game.  After Tomica Bacic hit a layup, Flagg would contribute with four straight points and Iona's 6-0 mini-spurt made the score 41-40 with 11:10 left.

The game would remain close as Nickel's two free throws would put Brown up 47-44 with nine minutes remaining.  But then Iona would make a crucial, eventually game winning 14-2 run.  Ford would key this run with seven of the fourteen points.  Her layup with 4:24 remaining would put Iona up 61-49.  Ford would add another jumper to keep the lead at twelve, 64-52 with 3:34 left.

But having watched Hofstra blow a thirteen point lead with 3:50 left in their game vs. Western Kentucky, I have learned that no lead is safe.  And sure enough, Brown decided to make it interesting.  Dixon hit two straight three pointers to cut the lead in half 64-58 with 1:44 left.  Ford and Flagg would score Iona's next five points and the Gaels lead 69-61 with 34 seconds left.  But once again, the Bears rallied one last time.  Dixon and Nickel hit three pointers and the lead was down to three, 70-67 with 14 seconds left.

Brown had a chance as long as they could either steal the ball or quickly commit a foul and have Iona miss two free throws.  But unfortunately for the Bears, neither would happen.  Ivkovic broke the Brown press and was fouled while scoring a layup.  She hit the foul shot and the game was over.   Iona had its first win of the season, 73-67.

Both teams shot 50 percent or more from the field in the second half.  Brown was 11 of 22 including 5 of 11 from beyond the arc.  Iona shot 54.5 percent from the field in the second half, despite only shooting 3 of 12 from beyond the arc.  That was due in large part to Ford who scored all 18 of her points in the second half.  Ivkovic also had 18 and Flagg added 14 points.  For Brown, Nickel and Dixon each had 20 points while Passafuime added 11.

Both teams play again today in the last day of the Thanksgiving Classic at Iona.  Brown plays UMBC at 1:00 PM while Iona faces Toledo at 3:30 PM.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Four Games in 25 Hours - Part II - Hofstra Overcomes Basketball and Comedic Royalty By Beating Wagner

After leaving the NIT Tip-off championship game at halftime, Tieff and I made the 6:07 out of Penn Station to head to Mineola train station where our cars were parked.  Tieff warned me that this is one of the slowest trains from Penn and yesterday was no exception.  Apparently, there was a disabled train ahead of us and thus we were delayed 15 minutes.  Two days, two delayed trains.

During the now longer ride to Mineola, I intermittently caught up on the Villanova score, while catching a few Zs.    Finally our train made it into Mineola and we raced to our cars and headed to the Mack center to see Hofstra take on Wagner, where there was a lot of basketball and comedic history on hand last night.  Unfortunately, the game was not on 88.7 WRHU, Hofstra's radio station, so I was going to go into the arena completely surprised by the score, but not surprised by who was coaching there.

In the basketball world, there are few basketball families more well known than the Hurleys.  Bob Sr is a legendary coach at St Anthony's in Jersey City.  He has had over 950 wins in his high school career, three national championships, 25 state titles, and he is only one of three high school basketball coaches to be inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame.  Hurley has had numerous star players at his school including Seton Hall's Terry Dehere and his two sons, Bobby Hurley, who of course was a star at Duke and Dan Hurley, who was a good player in his own right at Seton Hall.

In the Spring, I thought that Wagner pulled off one of the coups of  the coach hiring season by hiring Dan Hurley.  Dan Hurley was a very successful coach at St Benedict's in Newark, where his teams were consistently were some of the best teams in the country.  Dan then hired his brother Bobby to be on the coaching sidelines with him.  Hurley also hired Bashir Mason, a name that should be very familiar with CAA, Drexel and Hofstra fans.  Mason was the former point guard for Drexel in the mid 2000's including the 2007 NIT team and was the CAA's defensive player of the season in 2003-04 as a freshman.  Mason played for Hurley at Saint Benedict's.

Rounding out Hurley's staff is Luke Murray, who has been a successful AAU coach and last season was  an assistant at Arizona.   While as an AAU coach, several of his players have gone to several Division I schools including UConn, BC and Memphis.   This was his first season on the Wagner staff.

But Luke Murray also happens to be the son of one Bill Murray, yes the comedic legend pictured to the left.  And sure enough, unbeknownst to me at the time, Murray was at the Mack Center last night rooting on his son's team.  And I wonder if Bill said "It's in the Hole!" every time Latif Rivers drained a three for Wagner last night, because if so, Bill was saying it often last night.

Now Hofstra Coach Mo Cassara has his own family lineage in basketball.  His dad was a long time coach at Saint Lawrence and one of his dad's former players happens to be Wayne Morgan, former head coach at Long Beach State and Iowa State.  Morgan is now one of the assistants on Cassara's staff, along with assistant coach Steve Demeo, a longtime well known recruiter, and Allen Griffith, a very good point guard in his own right at Syracuse.   It was one coaching family tree vs. another at the Mack Center.

I beat Tieff to the arena and when I walked in, I was completely surprised as Wagner was up 15-6 with 12:53 left.  And a lot of that was due to the one man freshman wrecking crew Latif Rivers.  Rivers started the game with a three and added two free throws for the Seahawks who were shooting 5 of 10 from the field and had four free throws.  Meanwhile all of Hofstra's points came by two threes by Mike Moore, who was already sitting on the bench with two fouls.

But perhaps my presence inspired the Pride (yeah right), as they went on a 7-0 minispurt, capped by Shemiye McLendon's three pointer and Hofstra was only down two, 15-13 with 11:13 left.   But Rivers and Naofall Folahan scored nine of the next fourteen points for Wagner, and the Seahawks extended their lead back to 29-22 with 2:54 left in the first half.

It was Wagner's last two points in that spurt that really hurt the Pride, as Mike Moore picked up his third foul and headed to the bench as the Seahawks' Danny Mundweiler sank two free throws.  Hofstra would cut the lead to as little as three, but once again, Rivers buried another three and Wagner was up at the half, 35-28.  Rivers had 13 points to lead all scorers at the half, while Folohan and Tyler Murray combined to add 15 for the Seahawks through 20 minutes.

Notice I didn't mention someone's name at all so far.  Yes, that name is Charles Jenkins.  And there's good reason why I didn't mention Jenkins so far.  With most of the credit going to Wagner's defense on him, Jenkins scored only two points in the first half on two free throws.  He was 0 for 6 from the field.   Moore's eight points before his third foul helped, but it was an unlikely duo that was keeping the Pride in the game.

Through their three games at the Puerto Rico Tipoff Tournament, the Pride frontcourt had struggled and that's being very kind.  The combination of starters David Imes and Greg Washington, along with reserves Stephen Nwaukoni and Roland Brown had combined to shoot 9 of 40 from the field and 27 points, or as many points as Charles Jenkins scored by himself vs. Western Kentucky.   The Pride's lack of frontcourt scoring was one of the main reasons why Hofstra went winless in the tournament.

So far through the first 20 minutes of this game, Washington was again invisible, with zero points on 0 of 2 shooting from the field and had two fouls.   But Imes and Nwaukoni joined forces to keep the Pride in the game.  They combined for eleven points and eighteen rebounds, nine of which came on the offensive end.  That was very important, considering the Pride were only shooting 32 percent from the field.  Had they taken more advantage from the free throw line (only 9 of 16 in the first half), the game would have been even closer.

The second half saw Washington awake from his coma to score Hofstra's first four points. But another Rivers three and two free throws by Folohan on Washington's third foul kept Wagner in front 40-32.   But right after Washington's first basket on the day (he had also two free throws), he picked up his fourth foul and he was replaced by Nwaukoni.  

With Wagner up eight, 42-34 with 14:51 left, Hofstra made a run and it was led by their star player.  Once again proving you can't keep a good man down, Jenkins responded by scoring ten points during the Pride's 14-3 spurt, capped by a jumper in the paint by Jenkins to put Hofstra up 50-47 with 8:06 left.   Jenkins was in the zone and Wagner could do nothing to stop him.

What was really interesting during this time was the lineup that Hofstra had on the floor during basically the last fifteen minutes of the game.  With Moore and Washington each with four fouls and on the bench, the Pride turned to a lineup of Jenkins, Yves Jules, Dwan McMillan, Imes and Nwaukoni.  And late in the game, outside of substituting McMillan out at the end, Washington and Moore were basically observers as the Pride looked to pull away from Wagner.

But Bill Murray must have inspired the Seahawks by reminding them of this scene in Stripes, because Wagner came back with two Rivers free throws and a Murray three pointer to tie the game at 52 with 5:43 left.  But Nwaukoni  and Jenkins each drained two free throws to put Hofstra back up 56-52 with 5:19 left.  Imes would later hit two foul shots of his own and the lead was 60-54 with 4:15 left.   But again, the freshman one man wrecking crew Rivers buried a three pointer and hit two free throws to cut the lead to one, 60-59 with 3:29 left.

But Nwaukoni continued his coming out party by hitting a key jumper in the paint to put the Pride back up three, 62-59 with 2:56 left.  Then Murray sandwiched four points around an Imes layup (pictured here), and the lead was back to one, 64-63 with 18 seconds left.   Dan Hurley called timeout to setup a defensive play, but Hofstra got the ball to Jenkins who was fouled by Rivers.   Jenkins sank both free throws to put the Pride up three, 66-63 with fourteen seconds left.

Cassara responded with a timeout of his own to setup his defense.  Then crowd of 2500 plus (it seemed like more) got up on their feet ready to watch the final few seconds.  It didn't take analysis by Bobby Knight to figure out what the Seahawks were going to do.  It was pretty obvious who Wagner was going to have take the potential game tying shot.

Rivers had been money for 39 minutes and 46 second for the Seahawks.  He was shooting 50 percent for the field and 6 of 9 from beyond the arc and was also a perfect 10 for 10 from the line for 28 points  With the reigning CAA Player of the Year and the Haggerty Award winner on the court in Jenkins, Rivers had been the best player out on the Hofstra hardwood on Friday.  And he was going to get the ball.

The Seahawks moved the ball around and got it to Rivers who was basically at the top of the key.  With the whole crowd watching, Rivers launched his shot with his defender, Jules close by him.  For one of the rare times last evening, Rivers' shot was no good and who else but Nwaukoni got the rebound with four seconds left and was immediately fouled.  Nwaukoni calmly hit the first free throw to put the game away.  He missed the second but McMillan snuck in for the rebound and the game was over.

The Pride had held onto a 67-63 lead for Cassara's first win over a Division I team (his first win as a Division I coach came against Division III Farmingdale State).  Jenkins was simply Jenkins in the second half with 17 points including 7 of 8 from the line.  But it was Imes and Nwaukoni who saved the day for the Pride.  Each of them had a double double with Imes scoring 14 points on the day to go with 17 rebounds.  Nwaukoni had 10 points and 13 rebounds in his fourth game as a freshman.  Meanwhile, Murray had 14 points and Folohan had 10 for Wagner.

The Seahawks had a lot to be proud of.  They played a very competitive game and they had good fan support as the whole section behind the Wagner bench was filled with Seahawks faithful.   Wagner is 2-2 now on the season, but that includes a big road win over Stony Brook, the 2009-10 America East Regular Season champion.  The Seahawks are considered one of the teams vying for the America East crown.  Dan Hurley has his team going in the right direction. Don't be surprised if they win the NEC in the next couple of years.

As for Hofstra, Mo Cassara had to be pleased with his team's second half performance.  Hofstra shot 52 percent from the field and were 12 of 15 from the line.   He also had to be pleased with his frontcourt's performance, which is desperately needed for balance.  It wouldn't surprise me if Nwaukoni starts playing over Washington.  Nwaukoni works hard, is an excellent rebounder and actually gives the Pride a post presence that's sorely lacking.  

After a very tough road trip, Nwaukoni and Imes gave the Pride and their fans something to be thankful for the day after Thanksgiving.

Four Games in Twenty Five Hours - Part I - NIT Preseason Tip-Off - Day 2

When I was at the Jets game on Sunday with my good friends Tieff and Karen, a Villanova alum, we were talking about the Preseason NIT Tip-Off.   We already had know that Karen couldn't make Wednesday's doubleheader,  but then I told her that the championship was Friday, which she didn't realize.  Karen wanted to go, and Tieff and I, never ones to pass up good live college basketball,  decided  to join in, even though we had our season tickets to the Hofstra game Friday vs. Wagner.

Thus while the Jets made their historic comeback on the Texans, the plan was hatched.  Go to the Garden for an afternoon matinee, then leave the championship game early to head to the Hofstra game.  We didn't know who was playing in the championship game for sure, but we had a feeling Nova was going to be there.  Sure enough after Wednesday's night's action,  which Mal, Tieff and I had attended, the games were set for Friday - VCU vs. UCLA in the consolation game at 2:30.  Then at 5:00 PM, it was Tennessee vs. Villanova for the championship.

We met Karen right in front of the Garden entrance and got to our seats right before the start of the game.  It was a sparse crowd to begin the second day of the Tip-off at MSG, similar to the crowd for the start of the VCU- Tennessee game on Wednesday night.   Most of the crowd would be late arriving Nova fans.  But there was still a decent amount of VCU fans, and later it seemed there were more Volunteer fans than on Wednesday night.

With an absolutely terrific VCU pep band spurring them along, the Rams raced out to an early 6-0 lead.  Or more precisely , Jamie Skeen led the Rams out to a 6-0 lead, scoring all six of VCU's points in what would turnout to be a terrific day for the Wake Forest transfer.   UCLA would score ten of the next sixteen points and cut the lead to 12-10 on a Reeves Nelson dunk.

But unlike their first half vs. Tennessee, VCU would find their shooting stroke vs. UCLA.   A 11-2 run capped by a Tony Veal layup put the Rams up 23-12 with 8:53 left in the first half.    The lead would still be eleven, 34-23 on a Bradford Burgess three pointer with 5:00 minutes exactly left in the half.   And it looked like VCU was poised to extend the lead on the Bruins.

However, fueled by four VCU turnovers,  UCLA responded with a 14-4 run as a Joshua Smith steal off of Joey Rodriguez led to a Malcolm Lee layup and the Bruins were only down one, 38-37 with 1:17 left.   VCU would end the half up 40-37 as who else, Skeen with a layup, gave the Rams the three point cushion.

One thing was clearly evident.  Both teams were shooting much better in the first half of this game then they did in their previous games on Wednesday, as shown by the picture on the left.  However, both teams were also very sloppy with the ball with a combined 22 turnovers in the first half.  Joey Rodriguez' struggles from Wednesday continued over in the first 20 minutes of this game.  Rodriguez had four turnovers in the first half and was only 1 for 5 from the field for three points.

But as VCU fans were enjoying their pep band play a an awesome set of songs during halftime, they could thank Jamie Skeen for the first half lead.  Skeen was the best player on the court, scoring ten of VCU's first twelve points, and scoring twelve in the half.    He is an accomplished post player, passes well for a big man, can also block shots, gets to the foul line often and is very good free throw shooter for a big man (shooting nearly 78 percent from the line this season).

The second half started off very similar to the first half.  Skeen scored the first four points for the Rams and VCU extended their lead to ten 53-43 with fourteen minutes remaining in the game.  The lead remained ten, 60-50 when Joey Rodriguez hit his third three pointer of the game and the second of the half.   And the lead would continue to grow to thirteen, as the Rams remained hot from the field with Rob Brandenburg hitting a layup to put VCU up 69-56 with about seven minutes left.

It looked like UCLA was done, but someone forgot to tell the Bruins that.   Led by Malcolm Lee, Tyler Honeycutt and Reeves Nelson, UCLA outscored VCU 16-6 to cut the lead to 75-72 with 3:29 left.  The lead remained three 80-77 with 1:29 left when UCLA had a chance to tie.

During halftime, Karen, Tieff and I discussed who was going to win.   Both thought UCLA was going to comeback and win.   I said whichever team has less turnovers at the end of the game is going to win, and I thought VCU would win due to that.

The Bruins had a chance with 1:29 left but Darius Theus stole the ball from Honeycutt which led to Jamie Skeen's layup to put VCU up 82-77 and UCLA never got closer.   It was also UCLA's 21st turnover on the day, compared to VCU's 13.

The Rams would win 89-83. Skeen nearly had another double with 23 points and 9 rebounds.  He also added 3 assists and 2 blocks.  Rodriguez had a huge second half with three 3 pointers to finish with 14 points.  Burgess was 3 for 3 on three pointers for 15 points.  The Rams shot 48 percent from the field including 10 of 22 from beyond the arc. UCLA had four players in double figures led by Malcolm Lee's 23 points, which included 5 of 7 from three.  Nelson and Honeycutt each had double doubles - Nelson with 20 points and 10 rebounds, while Honeycutt had 18 points and 13 rebounds.

The Rams' pep band continued an absolutely terrific performance with a post game set while Tennessee and Villanova warmed up on the floor.  Meanwhile,  a lot of late arriving Tennessee and Villanova fans started filling the seats before the championship game.  Karen was very excited, because it was first time that she was seeing her alma mater live in a while.

Then right around 5:30, the lights dimmed. And as only the World's Most Famous Arena can really do, both teams' starting lineups were introduced under spotlights. Even though this was a "preseason" tournament being played in November, it's still pretty cool when the Garden puts it's special touch on such an event.  To put icing on the cake, the VCU pep band hung around and played the national anthem for the second game, then left right after.  A fitting encore for one of the best pep bands in college basketball who gave a MSG concert like performance on Friday.

As for the second game, it was clearly evident early on that Tennessee's suffocating defense was causing problem's for Villanova's offense, just as it had for VCU on Wednesday.  The Wildcats missed nine of their first ten field goal attempts and the Volunteers jumped out to an early 10-4 lead with 13:44 left in the first half.

What made matters worse for Villanova is that two thirds of the Wildcats terrific trifecta of guards, Corey Fisher and Malik Wayns each picked up two quick fouls not even seven and a half minutes into the game.  Tennessee would maintain its lead on Nova as Tobias' Harris three pointer put the Volunteers up 22-14  with 8:41 left in the first half.

The now shorthanded Wildcats just couldn't get on track in the first half as the quagmire, foul plagued pace definitely favored the defense heavy Volunteers.  Four free throws by Tobias Harris and Scotty Hopson put Tennessee up 30-20 with 5:27 left.  Nova would answer with seven straight points to cut the lead to 30-27 with 3:50 left.  But Nova would not get any closer as neither team would score a field goal the last four and a half minutes of the first half.

Tennessee would outscore Villanova 5-3 at the charity stripe and take the lead at halftime 35-30.  It was definitely Pat Riley Era New York Knicks basketball with lots of fouls called.  Let's just say there were more whistles during the first half than at a crossing guard convention.   We decided that we were going to leave because we wanted to get to the Hofstra game and Karen had plans as well in the evening.

As for the rest of the game itself, as Tieff and I were on the slowest possible LIRR train from Penn Station to Mineola, I followed the game on my cell phone. Villanova did rally in the second half and actually took a lead for the first time in the entire game when Antonio Pena put the Wildcats up 41-39.  But eventually, the Volunteers wore Nova down and won 78-68.

Thanks to the Tennessee defense, Villanova shot an ugly 30 percent from the field including an unseemly 4 of 21 from beyond the arc. Star Nova guard Corey Fisher had only three points on 1 of 10 shooting, which seemed an awful lot like Joey Rodriguez' performance against the same Volunteers two days earlier. In fact, the Nova guard trifecta of Fisher, Wayns and Stokes, which had scored 61 against UCLA, only scored a combined 25 points against Tennessee on 7 of 30 shooting.

Hopson again led Tennessee with 18 points as four Volunteers scored in double figures.  Cameron Tatum added 17, while Harris had 15 points and 9 rebounds and Brian Williams added 12 points and 7 rebounds.  Tennessee shot 45 percent from the field.   And if you were wondering how foul plagued this game was, well both teams combined for SEVENTY ONE free throws.   Folks, it doesn't get any uglier than that.

But still, it was a fun way to spend a Friday.  Two live college basketball  games with two dear friends. And now Tieff and I were off to our third game of the day, a Friday night date at the Mack Center with Wagner facing Hofstra.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Four Live Games in Twenty Five Hours

That's the goal of this weekend.  It starts this afternoon with a matinee at MSG with UCLA taking on VCU in the consolation game of the NIT Preseason Tip-off.  That's followed by the championship game between Tennessee and Villanova.   Then it's a train ride back to Mineola, followed by the quick drive to Hempstead to catch the second half of Wagner vs. Iona.

Then tomorrow it's up to New Rochelle for 3:30 women's action as the Gaels host UMBC in the Iona Classic.  Four games, twenty five hours. I will have live updates from the Hofstra game later this evening.  Enjoy your weekend.

Train Delays, The Party Night of the Year and VCU Falls Short at MSG

I was eagerly awaiting these next four days off from work.  It's been a really busy last several months and it's going to only get even busier starting next week.   My plan for Wednesday was simple - race out of work, make a clothing change in the car that would make Clark Kent proud, take the 5:24 express from Hicksville into Penn Station and meet up with my friends Mal and Tieff for the NIT Season Tip-off.

The first two parts of the mission were accomplished and I got to the Hicksville train station in see the 5:24 Ronkonkoma express branch train was delayed 35 minutes due to signal trouble.   The next train, a 5:27 local from Port Jefferson was delayed 14 minutes due to a "medical emergency on board the train."   So a whole lot of city goers were standing on the platform on a cold November evening wondering when the next LIRR train would appear.

The day before Thanksgiving is known as either the biggest party night of the year or as the single biggest day of drinking of the year.  As I drove home from Hicksville Train station Wednesday night, there was a news story on this on the midnight national CBS radio report.  A Detroit club owner noted he made as much money on the night before Thanksgiving as he did for a typical week.

And that usually means lots of young twenty somethings trekking to New York City for fun, festivities and alcohol.  Wednesday was no exception.   As I waited for the train, I noticed a pretty young girl in her twenties wearing only a long purple blouse, black pants and stilletto heels that were so long, they should be registered as lethal weapons.

A man next to me in a beige hooded sweatjacket and I had been conversing about the train delays.  He noticed her and told her to stand by us in front of a large billboard to cut down on the wind.  I then decided to take off my jacket and put it over her.  She at first resisted, looking at me like "what do you want in return for this?"  But after I insisted saying "It's ok really" and hopefully giving her the look that I really didn't want anything in return, she allowed me to put the jacket over her.  She then noted to us something like "I rushed to get to the train, I didn't think it was going to be delayed", followed with an appreciative thank you.  Having waited outside of clubs in my mid 20's with no jacket due to not wanting my leather jacket to wreak of cigarette smoke,  I could weather several minutes with just a long sleeve mock turtleneck.

The 5:27 finally showed 16 minutes late and packed.  The pretty girl in the purple blouse handed me my jacket and again gave me an appreciative thanks.  I said "Happy Thanksgiving" to both her and the beige sweatshirt samaritan and went up the platform to a less crowded train car.   Apparently everyone was taking advantage of the Party Night of the Year and the train from Port Jefferson to New York resembled one giant sardine can.

As I stood on the train holding one of the rails by the entrance to the car, it was apparent that the train was going to get more crowded as the train went to each of its next stops - Westbury, Carle Place and the always crowded Mineola.   Each time there was a stop, more and more people shoehorned into already jammed pack train cars.   The train conductor over the PA system kept imploring people to move in and make way for others getting on the train,

Finally at the Merillon Avenue stop, the conductor announced on the platform that the train was too packed and for those on the platform to wait for the Ronkonkoma express behind this train.  The Ronkonkoma express had become a local to handle the crowd.

Once the train got into Jamaica station, people started getting off for transfers.  A little more breathing room for us in our car.  But that was short lived.   Once we got to Kew Gardens, a ton of people got on there.  So many people that a man in a Kevin Boss Giants jersey who had escorted his young daughter to the bathroom on our end of the car was now unable to get back to his seat on the opposite end of our car.  Finally as we got into Penn Station, the conductor on the PA system exclaimed "WE MADE IT!"  Everyone our car got a good laugh as the conductor continued apologizing for the rough conditions and wished us all a Happy Thanksgiving.

I raced off the train, went up the stairs, then made my way through the Amtrak waiting area with all the riders waiting to head to various parts of the east coast for the holidays.  I walked my way up another flight of the stairs and made the all too familiar quick cross over to Madison Square Garden.  To me, I was home for the holidays.  Another NIT Season Tip-Off at the Garden.

Quickly I got a dog, a pretzel and a drink and headed for where Tieff was in the World's Most Famous Arena.  He had called me to tell me that he moved down from our section 110 seats to an even better view.   This was due to the fact that not a lot of people were there for the first game, VCU vs. Tennessee (we would find out later that this was a late arriving Villanova crowd).

As I noted in my article yesterday morning, VCU had been the party crasher to what C.M. Newton and the NIT boys had tried to make a Power Six final four pairing at the Garden.   However, the athletic Rams were only three point underdogs to the #24 Volunteers of Tennessee.  So the oddsmakers wisely knew that VCU was a pretty good athletic team that would give Ole Rocky Top a good run for the money (yes that pun was on purpose).

When the game started, it was definitely clear that the Rams needed to drive the lane to score.  Layups by Jamie Skeen and Ed Nixon countered their team's woeful outside shooting, as VCU was tied with Tennessee at six with 16:23 left in the first half.   Unfortunately, the Rams would only hit one Brandon Rozzell three pointer over their next ten field goal attempts.   During this time, the Volunteers went out to a 16-9 lead and threatened to extend that lead.

However, good teams find ways to stay in ball games when other facets of their game, namely field goal shooting, are lacking.  In VCU's case, it was their press defense and relentless rebounding, especially on the offensive glass, that kept them in the game.  The Rams quickly cut the Volunteers' lead to 16-14.

Then when Tennessee went on a 7-0 mini spurt to go up 23-14, again VCU responded.  The Rams whittled the lead down as VCU used the charity stripe to its advantage, scoring ten of its next fifteen points from the free throw line, while holding down Tennessee on the offensive end.  The Rams best player on the evening, Brandon Rozzell hit two free throws that would actually give VCU its only lead of the half, 29-28 with 1:47 left. Tennessee would regain the lead on a Scotty Hopson dunk and would up at the half 33-32.

VCU was only down by one point at the half, due to the fact they had hit eleven free throws and forced eight turnovers.  This was despite shooting 3 of 16 from beyond the arc and 9 of 38 overall.  The odds were that in the second half, VCU would shoot better and that spelled trouble for Tennessee.

But for a mid major team trying to upset a power six conference team,  the team generally must be on all cylinders, meaning one of its best players can't have an off night.   In March, Tieff and I saw Stony Brook give Illinois all it could handle.  But the Seawolves' best player, Muhammad El Amin,  had a truly off night, shooting 6 of 20 from the field.  Stony Brook fell short 76-66.

Wednesday night was another example of this.  VCU's Joey Rodriguez came into the game averaging 18 points and a ridiculous 10 assists per game, while shooting nearly 48 percent from the field and 44 percent from beyond the arc.  Grant you, none of the teams the Rams played were any good defensively as Tennessee.  Still, Rodriguez picked a bad night to shoot 1 of 10 from the field and have only two assists on the night.  Thus it seemed VCU was playing a man down all night.

The Volunteers though deserved a lot of credit.  Their guards got VCU's guards Darius Theus and Burgess into early foul trouble.  And in the second half, they shutdown VCU's drives to the basket.  The Rams were forced to hoist shots from the outside.  And Tennessee's front line of Brian Williams, Tobias Harris, Scotty Hopson, Renaldo Woolridge and John Fields were winning the rebounding war in the second half.

Now obviously when you see the number zero on the back of the jersey, you can tell Woolridge is the son of the famous Orlando Woolridge who played many seasons in the NBA.  But for CAA fans, another name there is very familiar.  John Fields played at UNCW for one season after two years at East Carolina.   In his lone season with the Seahawks, Fields averaged nearly eleven points, nine rebounds and had averaged 2.3 blocks while shooting 53 percent from the field.  Fields got his degree and took his one remaining year of eligibility and headed south to Tennessee.  VCU got to see a familiar foe again wreaking havoc as Fields had two blocks in only 13 minutes of action.

The second half was close knit for nearly the first five minutes.  Burgess' layup tied the game for VCU at 41.  But as was the case for most of the evening, the Rams couldn't get over the hump.  Tennessee responded with a 10-0 run capped by a Brian Williams two point layup as the Volunteers were having their way now inside on the small Rams lineup.   Tennessee extended the lead to eleven 57-46 with 8:30 left in the game.

VCU only had two real forwards play the entire night, Skeen and JUCO transfer Toby Veal.  Veal ended up only playing 13 minutes and thus the Rams used a lineup of Rodriguez, Ed Nixon (one of my favorite players in the CAA), Rozzell, Burgess at the four and Skeen at center.  Eventually, the size and equal athleticism of Tennessee was becoming too much for VCU.

But it didn't mean the Rams would quit.  Behind two three pointers by Rozzell and a three pointer by Rodriguez, his only field goal of the night, VCU cut the lead to two 57-55 with 5:49 left.  But with a chance to take the lead, Burgess missed his three point attempt.  Tennessee would then extend the lead again to 63-55 on a layup by Hopson, then four straight free throws by Harris and Hopson.  Four minutes left and the Rams were down eight.

But VCU had one last charge in it.  Rozzell nailed a three pointer and was fouled.  His free throw and another three free throws later were part of a 10-5 mini-spurt and again the Rams were down three, 68-65 with 2:51 left.   Again, VCU had a chance to tie, but once again a failed three point attempt, this time  by Burgess, ended up dooming the Rams, as they never got as close again.

Tennessee would end up winning the game 77-72.  Hopson had a double-double 18 points and 11 rebounds, while Williams ended up with 9 points and 11 rebounds.   Rozzell had a terrific night, leading all scorers with 23 points on 6 of 11 shooting from beyond the arc.  Skeen also had a double double with 11 points and 14 rebounds (7 were offensive rebounds).  But he only shot 2 of 10 from the field as most of his points came from the line (8 of 9 from the charity stripe).

The game went two and half hours, probably due to the fact that the teams combined for fifty five free throw attempts.  Thus a needed ice cream break was in order in preparation of the second game, Nova vs. UCLA.   We had moved back to our actual seats before the end of the first game, which were pretty good to begin with.  The crowd was definitely larger now, made up of mostly Wildcat fans.

One of the most recent annoying things in Sports is that teams' fan bases are now known as "nations".  This started of course with the Red Sox and "Red Sox Nation".  Now a lot of teams fans are known as nations, and unfortunately, Villanova has fallen into that horrible vortex.  Two Nova fans in front of us had "Wildcat Nation" T shirts on.  What was really stupid about these t-shirts was the bad outline of the United States.  Alaska was represented one fifth of its actual size.  If you are going to have a "nation", make sure to have an accurate drawing of it.

OK, off the soapbox and onto the game.  I have always been partial to Jay Wright for his years at Hofstra rebuilding the Flying Dutch, er, Pride into a successful program.  And his teams whether at Hofstra or at Nova were based on good guard play.  This season's Wildcats were no exception as Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes and Maalik Wayns make up a formidable trifecta of guards.

And Villanova came out smoking in front of their faithful.  The Wildcats hit five of their first six shots and were up 13-6.   UCLA stayed in the game as the smooth shooting and aptly named Lazeric Jones hit a couple of lasers from beyond the arc to make the score 14-11.  The Bruins would continue to hang in the game on a Joshua Smith layup to trail by three, 22-19 with 11:08 to play.

Joshua Smith is one of those players you end up rooting for when you first see him on the court.  Joshua is six foot ten...and 305 pounds.  And I think the 305 listing is light.   He looks like the second coming of Oliver Miller and actually that's a compliment.  He certainly is built like Miller and he has a nice soft touch similar to when Miller was good (before he sadly seemingly ate himself out of a pro career).  And Smith had a nice night with 10 points on 5 of 7 shooting from the field in 19 minutes of action.

Unfortunately, the rest of the Bruins shot 19 of 52 from the field and were no match for the Wildcats backcourt trifecta.  Nova would outscore UCLA 22-10 the rest of the half and were up 44-29 at halftime.  We decided to leave then to catch our trains back to the Island.   Villanova would never look back in a 82-70 win over UCLA as Fisher, Stokes and Wayns combined for 61 points.

As I waited for my 11:09 train at Penn Station, I was reminded that Wednesday night was the party night of the year.   Waves of pretty young females in their twenties in short minidresses kept walking by,  Some of the minidresses were so short and so tight, my actual first thought was that I was glad that both of my children were boys.   Not that I am a prude, but I just wouldn't want to be a father of girls nowadays.

I was able to get a seat this time on the train, though it ended up being pretty well packed itself.  My train car was not full of pretty young twenty somethings in cocktail dresses.  It was full of families, probably coming back from watching the Thanksgiving Parade balloons getting blown up at Central Park.  One of these days I will take my boys to see that.  But considering how cold it was Wednesday evening, I was much better off being at the Garden.  Another Thanksgiving Eve at the World's Most Famous Arena.  Another Garden Party on the party night of the year.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Early Mornings, A Midmajor Party Crasher at the Garden, and A Spamalot School

In November 2007, I was blessed with my younger son Jonathan.  He arrived two weeks early probably because he knew college basketball season just started and he wanted to hang out with daddy at 2:00 in the morning watching replays on now ESPN3.  OK, in reality it was because he was really hungry and wanted his first taste of milk, which to this day he truly loves.

Unlike our first son Matthew, when my wife Chelle was pregnant with Jonathan, we learned during a sonagram that he had a condition that's common with new born children, kidney reflux.  The condition is caused when there is a problem with the valve between the ureter and the bladder.  The result is urine backs up into the bladder.  If not treated properly, it can result in infection of the kidney.  We were sent to a specialist and the specialist diagnosed that Jonathan had a high grade reflux in one of his kidneys.   Often infants grow out of this problem due to the valve correcting itself as the child gets older.

Shortly after he was born, we went to Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park for x-rays on Jonathan. It turned out he had a grade 4 reflux in both kidneys.  Immediately, he had to be put on antibiotics, had monthly checkups with his specialist, and we were told that if he ever developed a fever over the next few months, that we should bring him to an emergency room.  Our specialist stated to us that unlike most infants, since Jonathan had a grade 4 reflux, he was probably going to need surgery around two years old.

Well thankfully Jonathan never developed any fever that resulted in him going to an emergency room.  However our specialist recommended that Jonathan have surgery a little after his first birthday.  So in March of 2009, Jonathan was admitted to Schneider's Children's Hospital and had surgery to repair the problem in both kidneys.   Due to his surgery being the first week of March, I missed the CAA Tournament that year. But there was no place I would rather have been.  The surgery was deemed a success but Jonathan had to stay over a couple of nights in the hospital.  While in the hospital, Jonathan was constantly monitored by the nurses which included waking him up at like three in the morning to check his vitals.

Needless to say, he didn't get any sleep and cried...a lot. Well, wouldn't you if you were prodded at 3:00 AM!  I will say this, I have never seen Chelle so upset about anything...ever.  She was not happy with the nurses.   Well when Jonathan got home from the hospital, apparently they affected his sleeping pattern.  For the next several months, Jonathan would get up and be fully 3:00 AM.

And my wife and I have this general understanding.  When it comes to the kids, she stays up late and I get up early.  So for the next several months as Jonathan was recovering, I got up and spent quality early morning time with Jonathan.  The good part of it was that I could write my college basketball articles while he was watching Little Einsteins on Demand or whatever.

Several months later, Jonathan's surgery was deemed a full success.  No more grade reflux in either kidney.   And after nearly two years of daily doses, Jonathan was taken off antibiotics.  And also, thankfully, Jonathan grew out of the 3:00 AM wakeup calls.   But every so often, as it is with two young boys, they get up early whether it's due to being sick or often a bad dream.

Well whatever it was this morning, shortly before 5:00 AM, Jonathan was crying and wide awake.   Two servings of milk and a couple of Little Einsteins episodes later, here I am writing another article on the couch.   And you know something, I actually got used to the 3:00 AM wakeup calls.  So this morning, in a way, it's actually quite comforting.

But hopefully I will get some sleep on the train into the city tonight as I head to the NIT Season Tip-off at Madison Square Garden.  Yup, another Garden Party.  But unlike the 2K Classic, the NIT Season Tip-off is a real 16 team tournament.   There were of course four host sites - Villanova, UCLA, Tennessee and Wake Forest, so thus the odds were in favor of the Power Six host sites.  But C.M. Newton and the folks at the NIT didn't expect that one of the host teams, Wake Forest would get knocked off.

Knocked off is being kind.  The Demon Deacons were actually pummeled by the Rams of VCU 90-69 in the second round of the Tip-Off at Winston Salem,  It was a dominant performance by Virginia Commonwealth as they forced twenty three Wake turnovers while only committing seven themselves.  Bradford Burgess had 25 points to the lead the Rams who had twenty five more field goal attempts than the Demon Deacons.

As a result, VCU faces #24 Tennessee in the first game of the doubleheader tonight at the Garden in front of a national audience on ESPN2.  The Rams promise to "wreak havoc" on the Volunteers in New York City.   VCU has a legitimate chance against ole Rocky Top.  And this time, I won't forget my Canon camera.

Finally, I always get a kick out of the names of some of these Division II and Division III schools that end up playing Division I teams in basketball.  Last week Eastern Michigan defeated Madonna 79-70.  Of course being the idiot that I am, I tweeted the following @gmoore21566 - I know Madonna has a reputation for taking on multiple men at once. But an entire basketball team?  Well, told you I am an idiot and it sets up today's unique school name.

One of my all time favorite movies is Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  And a few years ago, when the Broadway musical Spamalot came out, I made sure I had tickets the night after opening night.  It was downright hilarious and it was casted so perfectly (cmon, Tim Curry, Hank Azaria and David Hyde Pierce?  That's terrific casting!)  So when I noticed that newly minted WAC member Texas State plays, get this, Our Lady of the Lake today, I just had to toss in a scene from Spamalot.  This is Sara Ramirez, Spamalot's Lady of the Lake, singing "Find Your Grail"  from the 2005 Tony Awards.

This Thanksgiving weekend, go "Find Your Grail" and watch some live college basketball.   Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Old Dominion, the Ground and Pound of College Basketball

Being a big New York Jets fan,  I am well aware of Coach Rex Ryan's "ground and pound" philosophy.  It's run the ball, aka use a good "ground" game, and a have a really tough "pounding" defense.  So, when I saw that Old Dominion had beaten Xavier 67-58 in typical tough Monarch defensive fashion to win the Paradise Jam Classic last evening, it all made sense.  ODU is the "Ground and Pound" of college hoops and from all my years of watching the CAA, has been for a long time. The kind of basketball that when the opposing team tries to score inside, the Monarchs say "NOT UP IN HERE!"

The Monarchs were one of the best defensive teams in the country last season.  They were first in the CAA in scoring defense, second in both FG and three point FG percentage defense and of course, first in rebounding margin.  ODU  has consistently been one of the best scoring defense and rebounding teams in the CAA the past few seasons.  They also led the CAA in scoring defense and rebounding margin in 2008-09 and first in rebounding margin in 2006-07.  And through five games so far this season, Old Dominion is first in the CAA in scoring defense and second in rebounding margin at +10 (Drexel is a ridiculous + 14.5 but in only 2 games).

It all starts with their coach, the man with the "stache", Blaine Taylor.  As you can see from the link in the previous sentence, I wrote an article about Taylor back in January 2009.  Taylor is really one of the best in game manager coaches in the country.  And his philosophy is playing physical tough defense and working the ball inside.

As I noted in my CAA preview from earlier this month, since the 2001-02 season, sans one exception (that being the 2005-06 season where Isaiah Hunter led the team in scoring), a frontcourt player has led the team in scoring.   And so far this season through  five games, again, a frontcourt player, Frank Hassell, leads the team in scoring.  Hassell has averaged a near double-double so far this season, 12.6 points per game and 9.6 rebounds per game while shooting 61 percent from the field.

Taylor is also all about wearing opposing teams down.  He accomplishes this by using his team's depth.    Taylor currently has nine players averaging ten minutes or more per game.  And this is not unusual for an ODU team.  In 2009-10, nine players averaged nearly nine minutes or more per game.  In 2008-09, it was eight players averaging 16 minutes or more per game.  In 2007-08, it was ten players who averaged nearly ten minutes or more per game.  In 2006-07, it was eight players averaging 15 minutes or more per game And in 2005-06, it was again ten players who averaged nine minutes or more per game.

Watching an Old Dominion game is often like watching hockey.  Taylor often shuttles three players at a time into a game as if he was Scotty Bowman doing a line change.  And it works as the Monarchs opposition wears down late in the game.  Take for instance last night's game vs. Xavier.  Mark Lyons hit a three point for the Musketeers to cut the Monarchs lead to one, 52-51 with 6:07 left.   Xavier would then only score six points the rest of the game as they shot 2 of 8 from the field in the game's final six minutes. The Musketeers also did not have one single offensive rebound in the last eight minutes and 45 seconds of the game.

But as you can tell from the number of players that Taylor uses, it's a team philosophy, similar to what Kyle Whelliston wrote about the 2006 George Mason.   For Old Dominion, the whole has been greater than the sum of its parts.   Yes, there have been star players like all First Team CAA players Isaiah Hunter, Alex Loughton and Gerald Lee.  But for each Hunter, Loughton or Lee, there has been an unsung Monarch like Arnaud Dahi, Jonathan Adams and now Keyon Carter.  The guys that come off the bench who play at full throttle, provide suffocating defense and give the team a major spark when necessary.

And thanks to Taylor's philosophy of inside play, suffocating defense and depth that grinds opponents down, the Monarchs win and win a lot.  After nine seasons at ODU, Taylor is 188-103, a 646 winning percentage. Taylor has averaged 20 wins a season in his career and in his past six seasons as coach, Old Dominion is 146-60.  That's an average of  24 wins a season.  During those six seasons, Taylor has led the Monarchs to three NCAA appearances, including last season's first round win over Notre Dame and a NIT semifinal appearance.  Taylor may be one of the most underrated coaches in the game.

But maybe not any more.  By winning the Paradise Jam Classic, the Monarchs knocked off a team in Xavier that went to the Sweet 16 last season, plus knocked off previously another NCAA team from last season, Clemson in the process.  Finally, Old Dominion gave #16 Georgetown all they could handle, leading most of the game before losing to the Hoyas by three.  The Monarchs are no longer a well kept secret.  In fact, someone truly believes they can be a Sweet 16 team this season.  So OK, that person is me.  But still, the Monarchs are that good.

Significant tests remain before conference season starts.  There are home games with Richmond and Dayton, plus a road game vs. #12 Missouri still await the Monarchs.  But one thing is for certain when a team plays Old Dominion.  They best bring their lunch pails, because that team is in for a long day's work against ODU.   And usually that long day ends up in the loss column for the Monarchs' opponent.   Another team grounded and pounded by Old Dominion.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Monday Musings - Hofstra, Old School CAA Reunion and Rider's on the Storm

I was at the Meadowlands on Sunday to watch the Texans-Jets game.  My friends and I decided to stay in our seats after the Jets blew a 23-7 late game lead and watch the final 43 seconds of an apparent Texans 27-23 win.   You can click here to watch the ending to see what I saw live.  But since this is a college basketball blog, you'll have to settle on this site for Paul McCartney with "Jet".

Some other teams didn't have such a happy ending on Sunday.  Hofstra finished its long weekend in Puerto Rico with an 0-3 record after losing to Nebraska 62-47 in the seventh place game.   Charles Jenkins led the Pride with 15 points on 5 of 10 shooting, which for him is not many field goal attempts.  The Cornhuskers shot 54 percent from the field and outrebounded the Pride 31-22.  Jorge Brian Diaz led the Huskers with 11 points as ten Nebraska players each played over eleven minutes.

The Pride have two glaring statistics standing them in the face.   One has to do with ball possession.    In three games against three Division I opponents, Hofstra has only  29 assists and 47 turnovers.  The other is Jenkins' supporting cast.   Jenkins had a great tournament, in which he averaged 22 points per game while shooting over 60 percent from the field (26 of 43) in the three games.  The problem is the rest of the Pride shot  28 percent from the field (64 of 170) in the three games.  Jenkins needs a lot more help if Hofstra has any plans of contending in the CAA.

Part of me wishes that I was at the Paradise Jam yesterday for the CAA Reunion matchup between Old Dominion and Clemson.  It was former UNCW and current Tigers' coach Brad Brownell's first game as Clemson coach vs. a CAA opponent, which just happened to Blaine Taylor's Monarchs.    Two of my favorite coaches playing a little Colonal old school basketball.   And fans in the Virgin Islands were treated to a CAA style defensive slugfest as ODU held off Clemson 61-60.

Frank Hassell and Ben Finney each had 13 points to the lead the way for the Monarchs.  Demontez Stitt led the Tigers and all scorers with 24 points.  As usual, ODU outrebounded its opponent 36-27.  Old Dominion will take on Xavier in the Paradise Jam Championship.  The Musketeers outlasted Seton Hall 57-52 as Tu Holloway scored a career high 31 points for Xavier.  The winner of this game will have a huge feather in its cap as far as a resume for an at large berth in the NCAA Tournament.

Perhaps one of the biggest surprises of the first two weeks of the college basketball season is the Rider Broncs.   The Broncs are currently 15th in the nation in FG percentage at 52.2 per game.  A lot of that is due the trio of Justin Robinson (19 points per game, 55.6 percent from the field), Novar Gadson (12.5 points per game, 50 percent from the field) and Mike Ringgold (11.8 points per game 54 percent from the field).  The trio lead the Broncs to a 75 points per game average.

After blowing a 24 point halftime lead in losing to UMass on their home court, the Broncs have stormed back with four straight victories, including convincing wins over USC, TCU and Loyola Marymount.   The Broncs next game happens to be a home conference clash on Friday with three time defending champion Siena, which is incredibly odd having a conference game in November.  But it should be a very good game and may be an early season indicator of a new sheriff in MAAC town.

A lot of good games on tap tonight including an Elias Harris-less Gonzaga team facing Kansas State in one half of the O'Reilly Auto Parts Classic in KC,  the aforementioned mid-major battle between Old Dominion and Xavier in the Paradise Jam Classic,  Wichita State vs. UConn in the Maui Invitational and some team with the mascot of a Blue Devil taking on Marquette in the other half of the O'Reilly Auto Parts Classic in Kansas City.

Enjoy your Monday.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Defiantly Dutch Comes To Casa Del Moore for Hofstra - Western Kentucky

My plans were simple yesterday.  After work, go home sit on the couch and watch the ESPN 3 feed of Hofstra vs. Western Kentucky on my laptop.  Then later write about it.  Late yesterday afternoon, I was on my twitter account and I got this from Jerry Beach - #Hofstra Tweeps: Are you able to view on campus? Need a place to watch the game tonight since Cablevision blows.  Being the good samaritan I am, plus truly despising Cablevision and the Dolans, I immediately responded to Beach with Come over to my house. Fios baby.   I followed up with a text to my friend Jerry and he responded later with an affirmative.

I left work, raced home and helped tidy up the house a little bit with my wife who already knew I had asked Jerry over.  Being the techie I am, I grabbed a VGA cable from work and hooked up my netbook to my 40 inch LCD Samsung.  It would have been my work MACBook Pro, but I left the adapter at work (memo to self, splurge for the VGA cable and adapter for home).   Plugged in my audio jack and we were good to go for ESPN3 Moorevision at Casa Del Moore.  As much as I am usually impartial, Hofstra games are different.  Tonight, it was two Hofstra fans and as Beach puts it, rival bloggers hoping for a good game by the Pride.

Both Western Kentucky and Hofstra were smarting from double digit blowouts in the first round of the Puerto Rico Tipoff yesterday.  The Hilltoppers lost by 18 to a Minnesota Gophers team that was about to prove how good they were to North Carolina later that night.  Hofstra had been hit by a powder blue tsunami yesterday losing to the #8 Heels by 44.   So both teams were looking to right themselves and avoid the #7-#8 game vs. Nebraska,  who had lost to Davidson earlier 70-67.

At the outset, it looked like Western Kentucky was going to blow Hofstra out with 16-8 lead with 10:34 left.  Sans Charles Jenkins, the Pride couldn't hit the side of a barn in the first half as they missed on twelve of their first fourteen attempts from the field.  Four of twenty later on was an improvement for Hofstra.

Jerry joined in during a commercial break as I tweeted - Beach is here. Pizza soon to follow and perhaps followed by offense.  Immediately he was greeted by my friendly dog Twinkie and the sounds of a really bad cartoon music coming from my two sons watching a DVD in the other corner of my living room.  He can thank my father in law for that bad DVD.  I set up Mr. Defiantly Dutch with wireless access and the twitter/blog fiend was on his way.

But while we were talking about how futile the Hofstra offense was, the Pride switched from man to man to a suffocating zone.  This threw the Hilltoppers off their game and rendered star player Sergio Kerusch non existent.  Kerusch, who put 31 up on St Joseph's in the first game of the season had only two points the first 31 minutes of the game.  The zone also resulted in a lot of tipped Western Kentucky passes, resulting in a significant amount of turnovers.

As a result, Hofstra was able to work itself back into the game with a 16-3 run capped by a David Imes layup to put the Pride up 24-19 with a minute left in the half before settling for a 24-21 halftime lead.  The first half was not pretty.  The Pride only shot 29 percent while the Hilltoppers shot 34 percent.  But due to forcing numerous Western Kentucky turnovers and outrebounding the Hilltoppers on the glass, Hofstra had eight more field goal attempts and thus one more field goal.

Of course, Beach and I were noticing a few things while chowing down on pizza and being subjected to my two sons playing Monster Truck Wrestling.  First, ESPN's boxscore had Nathaniel Lester scoring two points for the Pride, which of course was wrong because Lester is out due to a quad injury.  Beach noted in one of his tweets that I replied "Did Andy Katz report that?".

Second, early in the second half, Andy Katz, who was sideline reporting for the Puerto Rico Tipoff commented for the upteenth time since he wrote this article, how much Mo Cassara and Charles Jenkins need each other.  Beach responded with a tweet " Andy Katz telling us AGAIN how Mo Cassara & Jenkins need each other. We know. We read the article.  I responded with "Andy is really a romantic at heart. Too bad this is hoops."

The second half started similar to the first.  Hofstra came out in a man to man defense and Western Kentucky quickly tied the game at 24.  Very quickly, the Pride went back to a zone and again the Hilltoppers struggled.  What also happened was that Hofstra showed some aspects of an offense without Charles Jenkins.  Jenkins only scored two of the team's first fifteen second half points as Shemiye McLendon scored six of those points along with a Mike Moore free throw to put Hofstra up 39-32 with 8:52 left.

As a happy Jerry Beach and I watched on, Jenkins started to take over.  He scored six of Hofstra's points in a mini 9-2 spurt that put the Pride up fourteen, 48-34 with 5:18 left.   Hofstra had frustrated Western Kentucky with its zone and now was putting up points.  It looked like the end was in site for the Hilltoppers.  But the Pride had left a little glimmer of light  for Western Kentucky by missing three free throws during this time, which was a microcosm of their day at the charity stripe.  The points that were left off the board would come back to haunt the Pride.

The Hilltoppers desperately turned to a full court press and it started taking it's toll.  With Hofstra still up thirteen, 52-39 with 3:50 left, Western Kentucky made its charge, as they finally starting hitting shots.   Pettigrew hit a layup to cut it to eleven.  A McLendon turnover resulted in a Kerusch three point play and the lead was down to eight.  Another McLendon turnover resulted in a Juan Pattillo dunk and the lead was now six, 52-46.  The scary thing was that Western Kentucky had scored seven points in only 43 seconds.

It was during this time that the blood pressure for both Beach and I went up astronomically.  Both of us were watching the game with a sense of impending dread, though we both tried to talk ourselves out of it saying Hofstra would pull this out.  It's like seeing the train coming, but you are in too much shock to pull yourself out of the way.

A Jenkins steal resulted in two McLendon free throws and the lead was back to eight, 54-46 with 2:53 left.   But after Kerusch hit another layup to put it back to six, McMillan only hit one of two free throws and the lead was seven, 55-48 with 2:20 left.  Hofstra and Western Kentucky traded two points each and the Pride was still up seven 57-50 with 1:45 left.  A Jenkins jumper was sandwiched between two Kahlil McDonald  three pointers and the lead was down to 59-56 with one minute left.

Dwan McMillan would turn the ball over but the Hilltoppers couldn't capitalize as Greg Washington grabbed the rebound of a missed layup by Juan Pattillo.  Jenkins would get fouled and with 40 seconds left had the chance to put the Pride up by five.  But Jenkins missed one of two free throws and the Pride were up only four.  Immediately, Caden Dickerson buried a three for Western Kentucky and the lead was only one, 60-59 with 35 seconds left.

All Hofstra had to do was inbound the ball and get the ball to midcourt and get fouled.  But McMillan couldn't accomplish that and within one second, Brandon Peters stole the ball from McMillan and hit a layup.  The comeback was complete and the Hilltoppers were up one, 61-60 with 29 seconds left.  Beach and I were beside ourselves.

But Hofstra had the last shot (or so it seemed) and the ball.  Mo Cassara quickly called a 30 second timeout. The plan was simple.  Get the ball to Jenkins.    Well the plan worked, and Jenkins drove the lane.  But two Western Kentucky players converged, so Jenkins kicked the ball out to an open Mike Moore in the corner.  Moore's jumper hit off the top of the rim and Pattillo grabbed the rebound and immediately was fouled.  Pattillo hit one of the two free throws and down to 62-60, Hofstra still had a chance to at least tie.

The Pride got the ball to midcourt and called timeout with three plus seconds to go.  But with Jenkins covered, the ball went to McLendon who took the last shot, but it too missed.  Western Kentucky got a huge comeback win, 62-60, outscoring the Pride 23-8 in the final 3:50 of the game.  Pattillo had a double double for the Hilltoppers with 17 points and 10 rebounds.  Steffphon Pettigrew had 12 points and Kerusch finished with 9.  The Hilltoppers had 13 more field goal attempts in the second half than the Pride.

As for Hofstra, they actually shot 57 percent for the second half,. 12 of 21 from the field.  Unfortunately they had 14 of their 19 turnovers in the second half which led to the additional scoring opportunities for Western Kentucky.   Jenkins had 27 points on 10 of 15 shooting from the field.  Moore added 15 points and 11 rebounds.  McClendon added 10 points for the Pride.   The trio combined for 52 of the 62 points while the rest of the team shot just 3 of 15 from the field.

The thing that hurt the most though was the charity stripe. The Pride had double the number of free throw attempts that the Hilltoppers had - twenty five to twelve.  But Hofstra only made thirteen of those attempts.  What also didn't help is that Hofstra only had nine assists and nineteen turnovers.  When Dwan McMillan has kids and tells them about his college basketball exploits, he really might want to skip this game from the storytelling.  McMillan had seven turnovers, two of them crucial down the stretch, was 2 of 8 from the field and 1 of 4 from the line.

Post game, Beach and I were almost at a lost words.  We felt numb.  As Beach had another piece of pizza and made best friends with my dog Twinkie by giving her the pizza crust, we tried to figure out when was the last time the Pride/Dutchmen had suffered such a bad loss.

Beach has his own terrific take on what happened yesterday and here it is in his words.  However, I would never use chloroform on him.  But I am old school.  If I wanted to take him out, I would have been like Colonel Mustard and taken him out with the lead pipe in the conservatory.

Jerry believes this loss was tougher than the one I pointed out, a February 8, 2007 loss to Drexel in overtime. I disagree.  This was only the third game of the season and it was a non-conference game to boot.  The game in 2007 had serious repercussions for the Pride.  The Pride blew a fourteen point second half lead when they lost that game.  As a result of the loss, the Pride would finish third in the CAA in 2006-07 at 14-4.  Had they held onto the lead and won the game, the Pride would have finished tied for second in the CAA with ODU and would have had the tiebreaker on the Monarchs since Hofstra beat VCU in their lone matchup of the season.  Instead, Hofstra got the third seed and ended up being upset by Mason in the CAA Quarters in 2007, the other most demoralizing loss since yesterday's game.

Yes, it was a really bad loss. Mindnumbing in many ways.  But as crushing as the two mentioned above?  No, because it was not a conference game, nor was it the end of the CAA Tournament.   I was furious after the 2007 Drexel loss and devastated after the loss to Mason in the 2007 CAA quarters after the Pride had defeated them at the Patriot Center earlier in February 2007.

There were positives from yesterday's game.  Moore has become the second option and McLendon looks to be a terrific sixth man.  Jenkins is in great form.  The Pride played terrific defense for 36 plus minutes.  They shot well in the second half and they rebounded from a beatdown loss to NC with a very inspired effort. The minuses are no frontcourt scoring, a serious need to improve their free throw shooting and they need to handle a full court press better.

But they outplayed Western Kentucky, a team picked by College Basketball Prospectus to win the Sun Belt, for 36 minutes.  There are things to build on.  How they handle themselves tomorrow against Nebraska after a bad loss like this will say a lot about this team.

As Beach left, he graciously thanked my wife and I for having him over.  He survived my kids, Monster Truck Wrestling and a friendly but mooching dog.  We talked for a little bit outside and then we said we would see each other next Friday when Hofstra hosts Wagner.  Then I walked back inside and thought "maybe I should have used chloroform and taken over his blog and Twitter account".   For me,  Moody Blues sure beats hair metal.