Thursday, January 6, 2011

Hofstra Takes Sole Possession of First in CAA By Defeating George Mason

In the first week of January, it's hard to imagine that the third conference game of the season would be so important.  Yet on Wednesday night, January 5, 2011, you had that exact situation.  Going into the night, only three teams were left undefeated in CAA conference play and two of them were facing each other at the Mack Sports Complex in Hempstead as Hofstra hosted George Mason.

The two teams have a recent history with each other, which really all starts with the 2005-06 season.  CAA fans, especially the Hofstra faithful know all too well that the Patriots were chosen ahead of the Pride for the NCAA Tournament, despite Hofstra winning both games against Mason that season, including the CAA Tournament Semifinals.   It just so also happens that CAA Semifinal game is known for the incident where out of frustration, Tony Skinn punched Loren Stokes in an oh so private area.   It resulted in Skinn being suspended for the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

And of course, everyone knows George Mason went to the Final Four that season.  But it was only the beginning.  The next season, after Hofstra won at the Patriot Center during the regular season, the two teams met again in the CAA Tournament, this time during the quarterfinals.  The sixth seeded Patriots stunned the third seeded Pride and later went onto the CAA Tournament finals before losing to VCU.   George Mason not only won that encounter, but would win the next four games over the past three seasons, including two wins against Hofstra last season.

The history between the two teams has resulted in some bad blood among the fans.   Using his terminology, my "rival blogger", Mr. Defiantly Dutch, Jerry Beach has made no secret of his animosity towards the Green and Gold.  And likewise, on the CAAZone Board, Mason fans have made no secret of their dislike for Hofstra and Defiantly Dutch.  So on a cold night early in the New Year, you had the makings of an all out war in Hempstead.

Knowing the Hofstra schedule as well as I do, the concern I had coming into the game was the attendance.  The Spring undergraduate - graduate schedule does not start at Hofstra until January 26.  And the past history of January weeknight games at the Mack Center has shown an abundance of small crowds.

But someone in the Hofstra Athletic Department was paying attention to this matter, because when I walked into the arena carrying my dinner of a pretzel and a large iced tea, I immediately saw a large contingent in the Hofstra student section.  Hofstra had invited the Freeport High School Marching Band and Cheerleaders to the game, complete with their Red Devil Mascot.  They filled up just about all the student section underneath the basket to my right (in regards to where my season ticket seat is located).  In fact, they filled it so well, that the loyal Lions Den student section members who did attend had to sit at the other end of the court behind the basket.  This resulted in my "rival blogger" having to stand up most of the game while doing his tweeting.

Hofstra jumped out to an early 4-0 lead as Greg Washington would hit two jumpers for the Pride.  Defensively, the Pride came out playing its Cuse zone that was effective Monday night in holding Drexel to it's lowest shooting percentage of the season.  However, it wasn't effective early on against the Patriots.  After the game was tied at six, Mason went on a 14-4 run, which included two three pointers and a jumper at the top of the key by Cam Long.  The Patriots, led by Long and Ryan Pearson, were finding the holes in the zone and were up 20-10 with 12:00 left in the first half, much to the pleasure of the group of Green and Gold fans who came up for the game.

For some reason, Mason switched from their man to man defense to a zone as well and Hofstra, second in the CAA in three point FG percentage, took advantage.  Over a five minute span, the Pride buried four from beyond the arc, including Mike Moore's three pointer which tied the game at 30 all with 5:11 in the first half.   Isaiah Tate would put Mason back up 33-30 with a three pointer.  But Hofstra would outscore Mason 9-2 the rest of the half, which ended on Brad Kelleher's three pointer at the buzzer.  The Pride entered the locker room up 39-35 at the half.

As the Freeport High School Marching Band put on a terrific halftime performance, Mal, Tieff and I reviewed the stats on the scoreboard.  Hofstra's weakness all season has been their rebounding and Mason took full advantage.  The Patriots outrebounded the Pride 22-11 in the first half.

But as I noted to Mal later after the game, the two key statistics that are often indicators of good teams are assist to turnover ratio and turnover margin.  If you can possess the ball well, you will be successful.  And so far this season, Hofstra is second in the CAA in turnover margin and third in assist to turnover ratio.  And at halftime, Hofstra only had three turnovers and those three came in the last three and half minutes in the first half.   Now normally, Mason is good with the ball as well as they entered the game first in the CAA in assist to turnover ratio and third in turnover margin. However, in the first half, the Patriots had eight turnovers and Hofstra had five steals.    This resulted in both teams having an equal number of FG attempts, 28, despite the huge difference in rebounds.

The start of the second half saw Mason start out quickly with an 8-0 run over the span of three minutes, which included a three point play by Andre "Yukon" Cornelius to put the Patriots up 43-39.   But Hofstra responded with a 14-0 run of their own, keyed by who else, Charles Jenkins.  Jenkins, who had nine points at the half, scored ten points by himself during this run, including a three pointer and two old fashioned three point plays.  The Pride was up 53-43 with 12:12 left in the game and from there, the rout was on.

Now CAA conference games are generally known for their physical play and this was no exception.  There was a lot of bumping, hacking, jersey pulling and hell even a hip check by Mason's Luke Hancock on a layup drive by Jenkins.  Patriots starting forward Mike Morrison had two fouls in the first five minutes of the game, sat the rest of the first half and only played 13 minutes the entire game.  Washington had his usual four fouls with 17 minutes left in the second half but somehow managed not to foul out.  However, Hofstra's David Imes, who did play good defense all night and had eight rebounds, would eventually foul of the game.

After two Ryan Pearson free throws cut Hofstra's lead to eight, 53-45, the Pride would use a 12-5 spurt to extend their lead to seventeen, 65-48 with 7:54 left in the game.  Desperate times call for desperate measures and Mason would press Hofstra the rest of the game.   The game got ugly as Hofstra had some struggles against the press, committing four turnovers in the last eight minutes.

But more importantly, the last five minutes of the game became FoulFest (though not quite as bad as Monday's Drexel-Hofstra game).  Mason would commit nine fouls during this time.  Unfortunately for the Green and Gold fans, Hofstra entered the game second in the CAA in free throw shooting at 72.4 percent and they would improve on that percentage in this game. The Pride would score 15 of their last 17 points on free throws and the game mercifully ended with Hofstra winning convincingly 87-74.

Jenkins had 23 points in the second half and finished with 32 on the game.  This included one series with an absolutely sick layup followed by him stealing the inbounds play for another layup.  He continued his season long torrid FG shooting by going 9 of 13 from the field and was also 12 of 14 from the line.  The one man stat sheet stuffer also had eight assists, five rebounds and three steals.   But Jenkins had help as four other Pride players scored in double figures.  Shemiye McLendon was huge off the bench with 13 points.  Despite an off shooting night (1 of 7 from the field), Mike Moore had 11 points on 8 of 8 from the charity stripe.  Brad Kelleher added 11 points, though he struggled handling the ball with 5 turnovers.  Finally, Washington had 10 points.

For Mason, Pearson did his best to keep Mason in the game with 22 points and 8 rebounds.  Long had 12 points, Yukon Cornelius had 11 points and Isaiah Tate added 10 for the Patriots.  Though the Patriots shot 45 percent from the field, had 15 offensive rebounds which helped in them having eleven more FG attempts than the Pride, they struggled from the line.  Mason only shot 11 of 20 from the charity stripe.  They also shot below their season three point FG percentage(38 percent) as they were only 7 of 22 from beyond the arc.

The win by Hofstra combined with Georgia State losing on a buzzer beater at UNC Wilmington gave the Pride sole possession of first place in the CAA.  That made the win over their rival even more sweeter, especially for our aforementioned Flying Dutchmen blogger. Mr. Beach has a little less than a month to talk up the win before the February 2nd rematch at the Patriot Center.

The win by Hofstra also made the rest of the 2377 in attendance, sans the Mason fans, very happy.  In fact one Hofstra Lion's Den fan gave coach Mo Cassara a huge hug as he went over to thank the fans behind the basket near the Hofstra bench after the game.   I am sure Coach Cassara didn't mind at all.   A week ago, after a twenty five point loss at Iona, a good number of people didn't think the Pride would be in this position.   What a difference a week and two big conference wins makes.

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