Saturday, March 3, 2012

Panthers Make a Statement at the Expense of the Pride (Recap of Hofstra vs. Georgia State)

I always love this time of year.  March Madness has been embedded in my soul for easily over twenty five years.  My favorite part of March Madness is going to a conference tournament.  In my younger college days and mid twenties, I went to the Big East Tournament.  Now, it's the CAA Tournament that is near and dear to me.  With the exception of 2009, I have been attending the Colonial Athletic Association conference tournament since 2003.

At about 2:00 AM yesterday morning, my good friend Jerry Beach, aka Defiantly Dutch, and I made the familiar drive down to Richmond, Virginia for what would be my ninth CAA Tournament.  The reason we left at 2:00 AM, is based on my experience, you want to avoid getting caught in the Washington D.C. traffic.

Dutch and I talked about music, Hofstra basketball and life in general.  I am glad he was able to go to the CAA Tournament as well.  I was especially grateful that he was John Candy to my Steve Martin. His good natured company and his sense of humor kept me awake on the early morning drive.  We made really great time and outside of a brief stop for cheap Jersey gas, we got to the outskirts of Richmond by 8:00 AM.  Dutch and I stopped at an Aunt Sarah's Pancake House for breakfast.

After breakfast, I dropped off Dutch in downtown Richmond at the Hilton Garden Inn as he was staying with a friend.  Afterwards, I took a nap in the hotel lobby, then made my way back to my car.  Then I took a short drive to a parking garage across the street from the Richmond Coliseum.

This year's CAA Tournament was going to be special for me.  It was the first time that I would have ever have media credentials for the tournament.  For the previous six years, I had covered the CAA Tournament from sitting in my seats in the Richmond Coliseum, taking the perspective of a fan.  This time I decided to sit on press row and thanks to the good folks at CAA Sports, who follow my blog and follow me on Twitter, I received media credentials.

So I entered the media entrance for the Richmond Coliseum and picked up my credentials for my site,   Rob Washburn, my contact at CAASports, greeted me inside the arena and showed me where my seat was on press row.  Sure enough, my seat was next to Defiantly Dutch's seat.  The CAA knows the #CAAHoops Twitter and blogosphere all too well.

The CAA Tournament consists of four days.  The first round, otherwise known by Chris "VCUPav" Crowley as "Pillow Fight Friday", begins on Friday with four games, where seeds five through twelve play each other.   There is an afternoon session of two games; eight plays nine, then five plays twelve.  In the evening, seven plays ten and six plays eleven.

Hofstra, seeded eleventh, was playing Georgia State, seeded sixth.  It was the second game of the evening session and the last game of the day. Neither Hofstra nor Georgia State brought a lot of fans, but there were enough other fans to make it a decent sized crowd, over 5200, for the last game at 8:30 on a Friday night.
The Pride entered the game with only three wins in conference on the season, but they had won two of their last three games, including a twenty nine point crushing of UNCW.  The ninth seeded Seahawks had earlier won their first round game, defeating the Dukes of James Madison.

Meanwhile, Georgia State, who in the preseason had been picked at the bottom of the CAA, finished sixth in the Colonial with eleven wins.  Ron Hunter, in his first year coaching the Panthers, took a team with the same talent that finished eleventh a season ago and made them a top tier team in the CAA.  Many people, including me, thought Hunter should have been picked Coach of the Year, but Bruiser Flint won the award.

I saw the game the Pride played vs. the Panthers last month at the Mack Center.  Georgia State jumped out a to a 16-5 lead with their aggressive zone defense.  The Panthers controlled most of the game and won handily 59-43.  If Hofstra was going to be successful, they would need to score in transition and not let Georgia State setup their zone defense.

And that was the philsophy of Coach Mo Cassara.  The Pride quickly got out of the gate and took a slim early lead on a couple of layups as they didn't allow the Panthers to setup their zone before they scored.   Hofstra was playing with a lot of energy early on in the game.

But Georgia State was equal to the task.  Eric Buckner, who I believe was snubbed out of the CAA Defensive Player of the Year Award, was dominating offensively.  Buckner had seven quick points.  His emphatic dunk gave the Panthers a 15-13 lead right before the under twelve media timeout.

In the past two years of the CAA Tournament, the sixth seed had lost to the eleventh seed.  Two years ago, James Madison knocked off Drexel.  Last year, I watched Quinn McDowell set a CAA Tournament record with thirty five points as William and Mary stunned James Madison.  After the first eight and half minutes, Hofstra was holding their own against Georgia State.  Could the sixth seed knock off the eleventh seed for the third year in a row?

The Panthers answered that question in the next eleven and a half minutes with a resounding "NO".

Buckner's emphatic dunk started a monstrous 24-4 run over the next eight and a half minutes to take a 39-17 lead.  Georgia State's swarming defense forced eight Hofstra turnovers in that span.  When the Pride didn't turn the ball over, they struggled to get a good shot off, missing six of their seven shots in that period of time.

Meanwhile, the Panthers were scoring at will on the Pride defense.  Georgia State scored forty five first half points, the most Hofstra had given up in the first half of a game during the season.  Georgia State shot sixteen of twenty seven from the field and eleven of twelve from the line.   The score was 45-24 at the half.  With the Panthers' swarming defense, the game was basically over.

All you could hope for if you were a Hofstra fan was that your team would play hard in the second half and make the game respectable.   Early in the second half, they did exactly that.  A Steve Mejia three cut the Georgia State lead to sixteen, 50-34.

But as Hunter said in his post game press conference, Georgia State was playing "with a chip on its shoulder".  They felt as if they had been not given the respect they deserved at the CAA Awards Banquet and they played inspired, even angry.  They weren't going to allow Hofstra to get any closer.

The Panthers responded with a 23-6 run over the next nine minutes.   At the under eight media timeout, Georgia State was up 73-40.  In my nine years of watching/covering the CAA Tournament, I had never seen such a dominant performance.

There was a young boy sitting behind the Hofstra bench with a sign that said "Free Hugs".  The Pride looked like they could use some hugs, because they had just been run over by a tractor trailer truck with a Georgia license plate.   The Panthers would go onto win 85-40.  It was the biggest margin of victory in CAA Tournament history.

Georgia State held Hofstra to thirty four percent shooting, twenty eight percent in the second half.  Meanwhile, the Panthers scorched the Pride, shooting fifty nine percent in the game.  Georgia State outscored Hofstra 48-18 in the paint.

Buckner was responsible for a lot of that damage, scoring twenty one points and grabbing eleven boards, four which came on the offensive end.  He was a perfect seven for seven from the field.  James Fields had fourteen points and Devonta White added thirteen for the Panthers.

Mike Moore, the leading scorer in the CAA had sixteen points for the Pride, but was only five of thirteen from the field.  Mejia had fourteen points, including two of four from beyond the arc.  Nathaniel Lester added eleven points.

Being a Hofstra fan at heart, it wasn't the ending I had envisioned.  Then again, having the Pride endure a 10-22 season was not what I envisioned either.   All you can do as a Hofstra fan is move on and hope for next season.  There is a major influx of talent coming in for next season.   Seasons may end, often in loss.  But hope is always eternal.  Right now, it needs to be.

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