Friday, December 30, 2011

Revenge is a Dish Best Served in Hempstead (Recap of Iona vs. Hofstra)

Exactly a year ago, Mo Cassara's Hofstra Pride traveled to New Rochelle to take on Tim Cluess' Iona Gaels.  It was the first season for both as head coaches in Division I Basketball.   On that night, it was all Iona, as they dominated Hofstra, winning 87-62.  It was the second worst loss of the season (next to a forty two point drubbing by eventual Elite Eight member North Carolina) for a Pride team that won twenty one games and finished third in the CAA.  It was also a Pride team that featured three time Haggerty Award winner and two time CAA Player of the year Charles Jenkins, who now plays for the Golden State Warriors.

So when Iona rolled into town last night sporting a 10-2 record, having won six of their seven previous games on an eight game road trip to face a Hofstra team that has struggled this season at 5-7, things did not look too good for Pride fans.  Throw in the fact that starting point guard Steve Mejia was again out due to a hamstring injury against a Gaels team that loves to press and create turnovers, it seemed like a perfect storm.

Iona is one of the best offensive teams in the country this season. Fourth in points per game at 85.9 points per game. Second in assists in 20.2 per game.  Fifth in field goal percentage at 50.9 percent.  They are ranked eighth in Ken Pomeroy's effective field goal percentage at 56.8 percent , fifth in two point field goal percentage at 56.2 percent and thirty third in the country at offensive turnover percentage at 17.9 percent.  And having seen them in person put up one hundred points twice in home wins over LIU and St. Joseph's in overtime, simply put, they are an offensive juggernaut.

The Gaels were going to be a tall task for a Pride team that had won two in a row after losing their four previous games prior to that.  But Hofstra had faced a similar challenge during this season when they met undefeated Cleveland State, another team highly talked about as potentially getting an at large NCAA bid due to their non conference wins. The Pride handed the Vikings their first loss of the season in Rhode Island, so the potential was there to pull off another upset.

This was the second game of a doubleheader.  The first game was a women's basketball game, where a fundamentally sound Princeton team held off a Hofstra team that had won nine of its first eleven games.   My older son and I had been there for the entire first game, so we were now entering hour three of our hoops festival.

Due to Iona receiving a lot of publicity on the local and national levels because of their high octane offense and their 10-2 record, a large late arriving crowd started filling the Mack Center.  Included in the crowd was New York radio show host Mike Francesca, who sat in the first row of the section next to me.  He was there just like everyone else, wanting to see two of the better New York City metro area college basketball programs square off in the final scheduled non conference game for both teams this season.

Hofstra came right out and made a statement to the crowd of 4,200 plus in attendance. David Imes and Nathaniel Lester combined to score the first eight points as the Pride took an early 8-4 lead.  But Michael Glover had three monster dunks and Kyle Smyth's three pointer gave Iona its first lead at 13-12 with about twelve minutes left in the first half.

Over the next couple of minutes, the teams exchanged leads back and forth.  The game was tied at twenty two with eight and half minutes remaining in the first half.   Hofstra fans had to be pleased that the Pride were going toe to toe with the Gaels, unlike their matchup last season.  What they were about to see in the next fifteen minutes of game action was stunning and completely unexpected.

The warning signs were already there for Iona.  In the first eleven and a half minutes, the Gaels had committed an uncharacteristic eight turnovers for one of the better teams that statistically holds onto the ball.  A lot of credit goes to the Pride defense for their inspired play.  But for the rest of the first half, Iona would actually top that total.  Over the last eight and a half minutes, Iona would commit another ten turnovers.

And Hofstra took full advantage of that.  The Pride would outscore the Gaels 21-6 in that span.  That was due in large part to Imes and Mike Moore, who combined for fifteen of the twenty one Hofstra points.  Imes was particularly impressive as he was very aggressive on the boards, with eight rebounds, three on the offensive end, as Hofstra had nine offensive rebounds in the first half.  

The Pride entered the half up 43-28 much to the delight of the Pride faithful in the crowd. Statistically, it was as if the world had turned on its axis.  The team that prides itself on ball possession, Iona, had turned the ball over eighteen times.  That allowed Hofstra twelve more shot attempts and seven more baskets.than Iona.   Plus Hofstra was outscoring Iona on second chance points nine to one, as a result of Hofstra's nine offensive rebounds.

You could tell Coach Tim Cluess was not happy with his team at the half, because the Gaels came out of the locker room several minutes early.  The team anxiously awaited on the sidelines for several minutes as the halftime CYO game was still being played.  It seemed like Iona was ready to make a run at the start of the second half.

However, inline with the last part of the first half, the Pride continued their onslaught on the Gaels.  The lead actually swelled to nineteen, 57-38, with fourteen and a half minutes left in the game.  Iona had no answer for Moore, who scored eight of the first fourteen Hofstra points in the second half.

But a team doesn't win twelve out of its first twelve games without the ability to rally.  Sure enough, the Gaels finally made their run.  First it was Glover, Momo Jones, and Rashad James who combined for a 11-1 spurt to cut the lead down to nine, 58-49 with a little more than ten minutes left.  The large Iona fan contingent in the arena had finally come to life in support of their Gaels.

Then came the three point barrage.  First it was Nathaniel Lester, who had a huge second half for Hofstra, trading three pointers with Iona's Smyth.  Even Moore got in on the act with Smyth, hitting his own shot beyond the arc.  But Smyth got the final long range shot in, as his third three pointer in the span of two and a half minutes cut the deficit to seven, 67-60 with less than six and a half minutes left.

But Iona would never get any closer than seven points the rest of the way.  Try as the Gaels might, Imes, Lester and Dwan McMillan would combine to score thirteen of the last sixteen points Hofstra would score on the night.  As John Templon, the author of the terrific Big Apple Buckets website noted to me at halftime, fifteen points is a large hole to dig out of as far as comebacks.   Hofstra came away with a hard earned, well deserved 83-75 victory.

The Pride had a balanced attack with four scorers in double digits.  Moore again lead the way with twenty four points, but he had a lot of help.   Lester had a double double with twenty one points and ten rebounds.  Imes had his own double double with sixteen points and fifteen rebounds.  And McMillan nearly made it three double doubles on the night with ten points and nine assists.  He outplayed his more highly touted high school teammate, Iona's Scott Machado, who had ten assists, but only six points before fouling out.

Glover led the way for Iona with his usual double double, twenty points and thirteen rebounds. Jones added twenty points as well.  Finally Smyth added twelve points, all on three pointers.  But the Gaels shot 42.6 percent from the field, well under their season average.  The turnovers killed them, as Hofstra had an eight point advantage on points off turnovers, which was the margin of victory.

So one year later, the tides were turned.  It was Hofstra that dominated most of the game last night, similar to what Iona did to them the year before.  Just like last year,  many fans shook their heads in disbelief as they headed for the exits not expecting the outcome they just witnessed.  The Pride will be ringing in the New Year on a high note. A three game winning streak should fill them with confidence for the battle with VCU on Monday.  Meanwhile the Gaels will have to regroup for conference play on Tuesday at MSG vs. Siena.

That's the wonderful thing about college basketball.  Expect the unexpected.

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