Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The 2010-11 Hofstra Men's Basketball Season in Retrospect - Part II

After Hofstra's exciting 92-90 overtime comeback win over James Madison, the Pride stood at 8-1 in the CAA and 14-6 overall.   It was their best conference start since the 2006-07 team started out 9-1 in conference.  A lot of Hofstra fans were excited and one of them was me.  I ended up writing an article about the Hofstra-Madison game I attended for the Mid Majority's 800 Game Practice Run.  Kyle was kind enough to publish the article.

In the article, I not only wrote about the game itself but how "many of your thoughts, concerns, and hopes often lie with your team’s schedule and play."  And thus was the case with me.  I thought about the possibilities of Hofstra having a first round by in the CAA Tournament, how the win put the Pride three games up on the Dukes with the tiebreaker. Could Hofstra finally win at VCU?  For the first time since that 06-07 season, I thought Hofstra had a legitimate chance to make the NCAA Tournament and I was consumed about the Pride's chances in the CAA Tournament.

But there was much work left to be done for Hofstra in the regular season of the CAA.  And they had just embarked on the second CAA gauntlet week of the conference season.   The William and Mary and James Madison games were the first two games in a four game span over eight days.   But more importantly, over the span of nine days,  the Pride were going to play four of the top six teams in the conference.  Hofstra cleared the first hurdle beating JMU, but a road game with VCU, a home game rematch vs. Drexel and a road game rematch vs. George Mason loomed on the horizon.

Entering the nationally televised game on Thursday January 27, Hofstra was 0-7 vs VCU at the Siegel Center.  The Pride and the Rams came out early on and played "a track meet" as the ESPN announcers noted.  VCU's Jamie Skeen and Hofstra's Charles Jenkins were putting on an offensive clinic.   But the Rams would go on a late 13-1 run and turned a close game into a 46-29 lead.   The Pride never recovered and suffered their eighth straight loss at the Siegel Center, losing 82-67.   VCU now had sole possession of first place in the CAA and Hofstra fell into a tie for second with George Mason.

The Pride had a chance to recover two days later against Drexel at home.  It was a very special day at the Mack Center.  Charles Jenkins was set to break the Hofstra all time scoring record on "Pack the Mack" day, which was a sellout.  The crowd of 5,100 included an overflowed Lions Den, which was a sea of blue with all the students wearing Charles Jenkins #22 T-shirts that were given out to them before the start of the game. One of those 5,100 was all time Hofstra great Speedy Claxton, who is now a scout with the Golden State Warriors.

As for the game itself, Drexel dominated the boards against Hofstra, outrebounding them 47-24.  Still the game was close for the most part.  The highlight for the Pride came with 10:15 left.  Jenkins hit two free throws to cut the Dragons' lead to 47-45.  With the two free throws, Jenkins was now the all time leading scorer in Hofstra Men's Basketball history, passing Antoine Agudio.   Unfortunately, the record came in a losing cause as Drexel held off Hofstra 65-60.   The Pride had now lost two in a row in conference and were now technically fourth in conference as they were tied with ODU but the Monarchs had the tie breaker.

Hofstra now had to face George Mason at the Patriot Center.  Since their back to back losses to the Pride and the Monarchs, the Patriots had won seven straight and were in second place in the CAA, a game back of VCU.   Mason jumped out immediately on Hofstra, going out to a 49-34 halftime lead.  The Patriots never let up and won handily 87-68.  The Pride had now lost three straight games and stood in fourth place at 8-4 in the CAA.

For the second time in the 2010-11 season, Hofstra faced adversity.  With six games left and the team with a shorter bench due to an eye socket injury to once starting point guard Dwan McMillan, the team needed to refocus and get back to their new slogan - "Roll Pride".   And the Pride did exactly that - roll.

The first game after the loss to Mason was a home rematch vs. Northeastern at the Mack.  This was not the same Huskies team the Pride had beat up in Boston, as Noreaster came out firing.  The Huskies hit 7 of their first 12 shots from beyond the arc in the first half.   In the second half, Noreaster continued their torrid scoring and went up 66-52 with nine and half minutes left.  Shortly thereafter, Charles Jenkins picked up his fourth foul and headed to the bench with 8:52 left with Hofstra down 66-54.   The Pride were staring their fourth straight loss in the face.

But Jenkins' teammates picked him up.  Hofstra went on a 9-0 spurt with Jenkins on the sideline to cut the lead to three.  Northeastern extended the lead back to seven, 75-68 with 3:52 left.  But the Pride shutout the Huskies the rest of the way and using a 10-0 game ending run to win the game.  Shemiye McLendon hit several huge free throws down the stretch to lift the Pride to a stirring 78-75 comeback win.  The Pride had stopped the bleeding by getting back to balanced scoring.  Hofstra was now 13-1 when three or more players scored in double figures.

Even though balanced scoring was definitely an ingredient in Hofstra's winning formula, the key ingredient to Hofstra' success was of course #22, Charles Jenkins.  Jenkins, who eventually would become a two time CAA Player of the Year and a three time Haggerty Award winner, was starting to get significant attention in the media and more importantly, attention by scouts.   This was no more evident than in Hofstra's next game, a road game vs. Georgia State.

Twenty seven scouts attended the Pride-Panthers game to see Jenkins.  And he didn't disappoint.  Jenkins had one point for each of those scouts with one left over for good measure.  He shot 10 of 15 from the field, 3 of 4 from beyond the arc, along with 5 rebounds and 4 steals.  Hofstra led by as many as eighteen in the second before eventually winning 79-68.  Three other players scored in double figures for Hofstra with Brad Kelleher getting 10 points and 8 assists.  Hofstra had now won two in a row and had a two game lead on Drexel and James Madison for the fourth and final first round bye spot in the CAA Tournament.

I have to thank Tom Yeager for making sure Delaware and Hofstra play home and home games every season. That's because one of my favorite road trips every year is the jaunt down to Newark.  It's barbecue and basketball when going to Delaware.  So after dealing with pothole crews on the Belt, moronic ticket booth agents at the Bob Carpenter Center and a ticket printing company that can't spell Hofstra correctly, I got the barbecue I so crave and proceeded to watch the Blue Hens take on the Flying Dutchmen.

As for the game, Hofstra came out and looked like they were going to handle the Hens rather easily.  The Pride, er  Flying Dutchmen were up thirteen in the second half, 43-30.  After Delaware cut the lead to 47-42, again Hofstra extended the lead to eleven 53-42 with 5:42 left.  But the Blue Hens again rallied, cutting the lead to two 57-55 with 48 seconds left.  But Jenkins hit four free throws down the stretch and the Pride, er Flying Dutchmen escaped with the 61-58 victory, their third in a row.   The only way to celebrate the end of a good road victory was a large chocolate truffle blizzard at a nearby Dairy Queen.

February 15, 2011 turned out to be a very special day for me.  First it was my birthday and it just so happened that Hofstra was hosting William and Mary on February 15.  Second, my older son Matthew came to the game with me.  By early in the second half, he was hooked and became a big Hofstra basketball fan for the rest of the season.   But what transpired the night of February 15, 2011 would be one of the best birthday presents I ever received.

The game started out with the Pride jumping out to a 15-3 lead as Mike Moore nailed three 3 pointers.  But just when you thought that Hofstra was going to blow William and Mary right out of the Mack Arena, the Tribe responded.  Boy did they ever respond, as they went out on a 36-11 run over the next 17 minutes of the game.  W&M was up 39-26 due in large part to one Quinn McDowell who had 11 of those 36 points.

But this night would be Charles Jenkins' night, as well most nights were.  Jenkins scored eleven points during a 21-4 Hofstra run and the Pride went back in front 47-43.  The teams would trade the lead back and forth with the Tribe leading 69-66 with nine seconds left.  But after a timeout, Jenkins got the ball and buried a three to tie the game at 69 and force overtime.  In overtime, McDowell scored seven of his twenty eight points in overtime, including two free throws to tie the game at 78.  But Jenkins would respond one more time, burying a 35 footer at the buzzer as Hofstra stunned William and Mary 81-78. Jenkins buzzer beaters went viral and his game winning shot was the #2 highlight on ESPN Sportscenter that night.

As the Lions Den section roared with the buzzer beater and celebrated with Jenkins who went into the student section after the shot, the Pride had won their fourth straight game.  While Jenkins cemented his legend with the game tying and game winning shots, the win was a team effort.  Moore had 25 points and 8 rebounds.  David Imes had a double double with 12 points and 10 rebounds and Brad Kelleher had 9 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds and 5 steals.  Hofstra was now tied for second place with VCU and ODU and clinched a first round bye in the CAA Tournament, their first since the 2006-2007 season.  They were now headed for Dayton, Ohio to play Wright State in a nationally televised Bracketbuster game.

I decided to go on a road trip and travel to Dayton to watch the game.  It's a nine and a half hour drive (at least it was for me) and I stayed at a hotel across the street from the Nutter Center, home of the Wright State Raiders.  Though the Wright State fans were very friendly and hospitable with me, unfortunately the Nutter and Wright State weren't very hospitable to Hofstra.  The Raiders jumped on the Pride early and led 17-9.  The Pride rallied to get the score within 19-15 but could not get any closer.  Wright State did a terrific job of playing the passing lanes and double teamed and triple teamed Jenkins.  Vaughn Duggins, a former UNCW recruit until Brad Brownell left the Seahawks for Wright State, led all scorers with a career high 31 points in a convincing 82-56 win for the Raiders.

Hofstra needed to bounce back and would have to do so on the road at UNC Wilmington, a team they had  to rally to beat at home.   And it was another Charles Jenkins vs. Chad Tomko duel.   Both players scored 14 points in the first half as the teams were tied thirty at the half.   And after a little more than thirty six minutes, the teams were still tied at 59.  But David Imes hit a jumper to put the Pride up to stay as they eventually beat the Seahawks 71-64.  Imes had a terrific game with 12 points and 17 rebounds, his sixth double double of the year.  Greg Washington added 7 points, 7 rebounds 3 blocks and 2 steals while staying out of foul trouble.  With three games left in conference, Hofstra was 13-4 in conference and with a win vs. Delaware, they could finish no lower than third in the CAA.

The Pride's last game of the CAA regular season was a special one.  It was decided a few days prior to the game that Charles Jenkins would have his jersey retired before the Senior's Day game.  And that certainly helped the attendance, as another sold out crowd saw Brad Kelleher and Greg Washington, who were also graduating, have videos in their honor and then got their framed jerseys.  Then it was Jenkins turn,   After Jenkins' video (which could have been sent to all 30 NBA teams afterwards for scouting purposes), everyone looked up to the rafters to see the unveiling of Jenkins' #22 jersey.  It was the first time ever in Hofstra athletic history that an active player's number was retired before their last game.  The crowd roared "CHARLES JEN-KINS!" as the black cloth was lowered from the banner in the rafters.

As for the game itself, Delaware led early 19-17 before Shemiye McLendon sparked a 12-2 run and Hofstra went up 33-26 at the half.  Hofstra had already known that they clinched at least third place when it was announced over the PA system that James Madison had defeated VCU.    Then the three Hofstra seniors, Washington, Kelleher, and Jenkins scored 19 of the Pride's first 23 points as Hofstra went out to a 20 point lead.  All that was left was to take Jenkins out of the game with 58.6 seconds left.  The entire crowd of 5100 Hofstra faithful gave Jenkins a standing ovation in what would be his last Hofstra home game.  The Pride would defeat the Blue Hens 79-60 and finish the CAA regular season with a 14-4 record, their best since the 2006-07 season.  Hofstra headed to Richmond winners of six in a row in conference.

Hofstra would now enter the CAA Tournament as the third seed with a first round bye.  This was a team that again "Prided" itself on ball possession, ball movement, free throw marksmanship and balanced scoring.  Hofstra was first in the CAA in free throw shooting and assist to turnover ratio and third in turnovers.  Entering the CAA Tournament, Hofstra was 18-1 when three or more players scored in double figures.  Yes, Jenkins was a huge part, but not the whole story.  Mike Moore was a more than capable second scorer averaging just about 15 points per game, good for 11th in the CAA and was second in the CAA in free throw shooting percentage at 85.2 percent.  Greg Washington was second in blocks.  Brad Kelleher was second in the CAA in assists to turnover ratio (tied with Charles Jenkins at 2.2) and seventh in assists. David Imes had six double doubles on the season (Hofstra was 6-0 when Imes had a double double).

But Jenkins was still the man as he would win his second straight CAA player of the year award and recently won his third straight Haggerty Award in a row (which only Jim McMillan and Chris Mullin have accomplished).  Jenkins was the ultimate stat stuffer in the CAA - first in scoring at 22.6 points per game, sixth in FG percentage at 51.7 percent (he was the only guard in the top six in FG percentage), 6th in 3 point FG percentage at 42 percent, second in assists at 4.8 per game, fifth in FT percentage at 82.4 percent, 4th in steals and tied for second in assists to turnover ratio.

In fact, Jenkins was so important to his team, he finished sixth in John Hollinger's College Basketball Player Efficiency Ratings. As a result of Jenkins' terrific senior season, there was talk of him being a first round draft pick.  All that was missing for Jenkins was a NCAA berth, something he wanted so badly.

When you have balanced scoring, the ability to possess and pass the ball, good free throw shooting and the best player in the conference,  chances were that Hofstra was good in close games.  And sure enough, entering the CAA Tournament, the Pride's record in games decided by seven points or less was 9-3.  Hofstra would be a tough out in Richmond.

Hofstra's first opponent would be William and Mary in the quarterfinals.  The eleventh seeded Tribe stunned the sixth seeded Dukes of James Madison in the first round.  No doubt the Hofstra coaches and players were watching Quinn McDowell set a CAA Tournament record as he scorched JMU for 35 points.   As noted previously, McDowell had scored 28 vs. Hofstra.  So the Pride had their work cut out for them.

William and Mary started the game out with a 9-0 run on Hofstra.  But the Pride responded with an 11-0 run of their own.  The Tribe would respond with an 8-2 spurt and went up six, 23-17.  But Hofstra would score eight of the last twelve points in the first half and would only be down 27-25.  Jenkins only had five points at the half and you knew that wouldn't last.

And sure enough in the second half, Jenkins came to life as he, Kelleher and Moore combined for eleven points to put Hofstra up 45-36.  Later on in the second half, the Pride put the game away with a 15-0 run.  Jenkins would score 15 of his 20 points in the second half.

Meanwhile, Cassara made his third best coaching move of the season.  He had his team take McDowell out of the game and force the other Tribe players to beat them.   Hofstra hounded McDowell all night and limited to just six points on just 2 of 6 shooting from the field.   The Pride dominated the last 20 minutes of the game and won handily 72-56.  Hofstra forced 15 W&M turnovers while only committing two turnovers themselves (while dishing out 12 assists).  The Pride again had four scorers in double figures with Kelleher, Moore and Imes each having 10 or more points.

Hofstra now faced ODU in the semifinals as all top four teams made the third day of the CAA Tournament.  After watching #4 seed VCU soundly upset #1 seed George Mason, Hofstra was hoping to knock off #2 Old Dominion, the defending CAA champions.   Could there be another upset in Richmond?

Well, both teams came out smoking from the field.  Hofstra hit eight of its first eleven shots while ODU hit six of their first nine.  Ten minutes into the game and the Monarchs were only up one 22-21 in what was a high scoring affair by ODU standards.  A little bit more than a minute later, Greg Washington, who had been so effective coming off screens for layups, picked up his second foul.  When he went to the bench, so did the Pride offense.  The Monarchs jumped out to an eight point lead.  Hofstra would cut it back to three, but ODU got it back up to seven, 41-34 at the half.

The Pride tried valiantly to come back and got within 56-50 on a Jenkins three with twelve minutes left.  But Hofstra missed on two chances to cut the lead even further.  ODU would not give them a third chance as they shot 57 percent from the field.   Despite scoring eleven more points than the Monarchs on average gave up for the season, and dishing out 19 assists to only four turnovers, the Pride lost to the Monarchs 77-69.  With all five starters scoring in double figures for Hofstra, it was only the second time all season the Pride lost when that happened.

It may have been a disappointing end to the CAA Tournament season for Hofstra and particularly for Jenkins, but they had a lot to be proud of as a result.  The Pride had thirty one assists and only six turnovers in two games which is an astounding 5-1 assists to turnover ratio.  Hofstra held Quinn McDowell to six points one night after he set the all time CAA single game scoring record.   The other three CAA semifinalists all made the NCAA Tournament.  ODU lost on a buzzer beater to eventual National Runnerup Butler in the first round, George Mason won their first round game against Nova and of course there was VCU's epic Final Four run.

The Pride season would end in their season on a Division II basketball court in an anti-climatic loss to Evansville in the CBI 77-70, which featured terrific stat updates by the Evansville web site (yes, that was sarcastic).  The Pride would finish 21-12 on the season.

The season was memorable for many reasons, the main reason was obviously Jenkins.   As noted earlier, Jenkins received significant national attention for his play this season.  There were countless articles about Jenkins in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal (and here's a second one), Sports Illustrated and ESPN, among other national publications.  Jenkins received an honorable mention all America this season as well.  And when your program receives national attention like that, it certainly helps getting your name out in recruiting.

But the team also had a big following via social media and a lot of that had to do with Coach Cassara's embracing of social media.  Coach Cassara is probably up around 5:30 a.m. and already he is posting on Facebook, where he has 1895 friends and on Twitter, where he has 1614 followers.  And the coach has a sense of humor using social media.  Someone started on Facebook "Charles Jenkins Facts", a hilarious takeoff on Chuck Norris Facts.  When Hofstra traveled to UNCW, Cassara remarked "Charles Jenkins is driving the bus."

Cassara has found a home at Hofstra after he thought he might have been without a job after Tim Welsh got fired.  During a Hofstra women's home basketball game against Virginia, I was sitting with my friend Tony and Defiantly Dutch.  Coach Cassara came by to say hi to Dutch and he sat with us for about 20 minutes.  I remember him vividly him talking how he genuinely appreciates the opportunity he received and how he loves the Hofstra community.  

Cassara can often be found at many Hofstra sporting events and functions. And from what I have seen, the Hofstra community loves him.  Hofstra home basketball game attendance was certainly up this season and there were two sellouts.  I have never seen the Lions Den student section so animated since the 2005-06 season.   There is a buzz around the basketball program now, one that certainly had not been there before.   Yes, much of that credit belongs to Jenkins, but much of it also belongs to Cassara as well.

The season may be over but the future is very bright for Hofstra.  When Jenkins is drafted by a NBA team, that will bring more publicity to the basketball program.  Also, Cassara has some solid returning starters in Moore and Imes, plus Nathaniel Lester is returning for his redshirt senior season.  McLendon, who was so good coming off the bench, may now be a starter.  Steve Mejia, a transfer point guard from Rhode Island, who Cassara highly regards, will now be eligible and will likely start at point guard.  Dwan McMillan is now healthy from his eye socket injury.  And a good recruiting class led by Malik Nichols should help out.

All I know is that I wish college basketball season started today.  And many other fans that I know feel the same way.  There is one in particular, a soon to be six year old boy, who can't wait for Hofstra basketball season to start.  All I can tell him is to have patience.  It will be worth the wait.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The 2010-11 Hofstra Men's Basketball Season in Retrospect - Part I

It was two months ago Sunday since Hofstra played in its final game of the 2010-11 season, a first round loss to Evansville in the CBI.  But the first season under Mo Cassara had a lot more triumphs than defeats.  And considering how the 2010-11 season started, it was truly an amazing ride.

The 2010-11 season really started in April of last year when Tom Pecora left the comforts of Hempstead for Rose Hill.   Along came Tim Welsh, whose 30 day stay ended in resignation after being arrested for DWI.  Faced with the possibility of completely starting from scratch, Hofstra Athletic Director Jack Hayes instead turned to Cassara, one of Welsh's assistant coaches and offered him the position after a meeting with University President Stuart Rabinowitz.  It turned out to be a terrific move.

But from the start, Cassara and his assistants Steve Demeo, Wayne Morgan (a key addition having an experienced former head coach on the bench), and Allen Griffin were playing with a short deck.  Pecora had already taken his four recruits with him to Fordham.    Then two first team All Rookie CAA players Halil Kanacevic and Chaz Williams transferred.   The coaching staff did a yeoman's job quickly bringing in four recruits, three of whom would see significant minutes during the season - Dwan McMillan, Shemiye McLendon and Stephen Nwaukoni.

But Cassara would be dealt with another loss as senior starter/sixth man Nathaniel Lester would tear his quad during training and be redshirted for the season.   Finally, Cassara would play even another man short for the first eight games of the season as guard Brad Kelleher got an additional eight game suspension by the NCAA after being disallowed to play his junior season for signing an application form.

Cassara though developed an immediate friendship with Hofstra's best player, the now three time reigning Haggerty Award winner and now two time CAA Player of the Year, Charles Jenkins.  The two of them would have to guide a relatively young team through the entire season.

The shorthanded Pride won their first game handily against Division III Farmingdale State before heading to the Puerto Rico Tip Off.   In their first round game against North Carolina on national TV, Jenkins matched heralded Tar Heel freshman Harrison Barnes shot for shot in the first half before North Carolina ran away with the game in a 107-63 win.  Then came the 2nd round loser's bracket game vs. Western Kentucky.  Hofstra led most of the way and was up 52-39 with 3:50 left.  But the Hilltoppers' press caused numerous Pride turnovers the rest of the way.  Hofstra was outscored 23-8 the rest of the game and Western Kentucky came away with a 62-60 win.   The Pride finished up the Puerto Rico tipoff losing to Nebraska.

This was Cassara's first true test as a coach.  How do get your team to respond after a rough pre-season tournament?  The answer was ride your horse, Charles Jenkins.  First, they would defeat comedic and basketball royalty in defeating Wagner.  The Pride's second win in a row came as a result of a solid defensive effort on the road defeating Rider.  It was followed by a convincing home win over conference rival Towson.

Then came one of  Charles Jenkins' many season defining moments as he and Mike Moore were the ultimate two man duo at Binghamton.  Moore kept Hofstra in the game in the first half with 15 points.  But in the second half, it was all number 22.  Jenkins scored 17 points over a five and half minute span to rally the Pride from a double digit deficit.  He then scored his 30th and 31st points of the second half on a layup with six seconds left to force overtime.  Jenkins final two points, which gave him forty on the night, combined with Mike Moore's OT points gave Hofstra the win.  Jenkins and Moore combined for sixty eight of the Pride's eighty-nine points as Jenkins and company that night managed to overheat my Macbook Pro, which was playing the streaming video of the game.

After a close loss at home to eventual Sun Belt regular season champion Florida Atlantic on Brad Kelleher's Free to Play for Hofstra Day, the Pride would bounce back with a win at Manhattan, where Jenkins got his 2000th career point.and Defiantly Dutch learned that you have to get to a Manhattan game early, otherwise you have to park in the next borough.   Then came a home win over Holy Cross, where Antoine Agudio was there to see Jenkins receive a special commerative basketball for getting his 2000th career point.  But the 2010 calendar year ended on sour note as Hofstra was dominated by Iona at the Hynes Center, losing to the Gaels 87-62.  Heading into 2011, the Pride's record stood at 7-5.

One of the marks of a good team is how it responds to adversity.  After losing by twenty five points to a local rival, Hofstra was staring straight into the barrel of a gun the first of week of January.  CAA conference season was truly starting, and the Pride had to play three conference games in six days.   And it was truly a gauntlet.  The first game was at Drexel, a team that had earlier won at nationally ranked Louisville on national TV.  Then it was a home game two days later against George Mason, a team Hofstra hadn't beat since 2007.  Finally, there was a road game at Northeastern.  The last time they played the Huskies, the Pride lost to them in double overtime in the 2010 CAA Quarterfinals, a game Hofstra should have won in regulation.  This was a true test of the Pride.

And the Pride passed the test with flying colors.  First at the DAC, Coach Cassara made what I thought was one of his three best coaching moves of the season.   Cassara played a zone defense against Drexel, except that he had sophomore guard Yves Jules play matchup against the Dragons' best players, shooting guard Chris Fouch.  Jules held Fouch to 3 of 10 shooting from the field.

In October of last year at the Hofstra Season Ticket Holder Reception, Coach Cassara stated that David Imes had been a player that really impressed him during the initial practices.  Imes had been seldom used in his freshman season under Tom Pecora.  But Imes became a starter for Cassara and he came through big time against the Dragons.  Imes scored twenty points and grabbed eight rebounds to lead Hofstra to an impressive 75-69 road win over Drexel.

Then came the home game vs. Mason.   As most of you know, the two teams have a recent history that dates back to 2006.  The Pride hadn't beat the Patriots since 2007.   But the Mason streak would end that Wednesday night.  It didn't seem that way early on as GMU took a 20-10 lead early on Hofstra.  But the Pride would outscore them 29-15 the rest of the half and go up four at halftime.  In the second half, again Mason went up in the beginning, due to an 8-0 run.  But again Hofstra responded with a 14-0 run of their own and never looked back.  The Pride gave the Patriots their worst regular season conference loss, an 87-74 drubbing, much to the delight of Defiantly Dutch. It gave Hofstra sole possession of first place in the CAA at 3-0.  Jenkins had 32 points, but four other players also scored in double figures for the Pride.

Hofstra had a chance for a sweep of gauntlet week at Northeastern, always a tough place to play for the Blue and Gold. But again, Hofstra would have balanced scoring.  All five Pride starters scored in double digits and Hofstra came away with an impressive 76-67 win.   The Pride shot 53 percent from the field and 90 percent from the line in the win.  Hofstra finished the First Gauntlet Week at 4-0.

The Pride then had a road game vs. Towson right before an all important home game vs. Old Dominion.  Five years ago to that very day, Hofstra played at Towson.  Gary Neal basically singlehandely beat the Pride down the stretch of that game, which likely cost Hofstra a tie for first place in the CAA in the 2005-06 season.   With a chance for redemption, the Pride came out and led from start to finish, winning handily 74-60.  What impressed me the most about the win was the Towson radio announcers commenting how well Hofstra moved the ball around again the Towson zone.  It was emblematic of how the Pride were playing in January.  Good ball movement, balanced scoring and excellent ball possession, all marks of a good team.

Hofstra was now 5-0 in conference heading into their home game vs. Old Dominion, the defending CAA champions, who were 3-2 going into the game.  The Pride came out on fire and looked like they were going to blow the Monarchs out of the building with a 12-0 start to the game.  But ODU played their "ground and pound" game to perfection, rallying back and eventually wearing down Hofstra to take a two point halftime lead.  In the second half, led by eventual all First Team CAA forward Frank Hassell, the Monarchs held off the Pride and eventually won 75-64.  It was Hofstra's first loss in conference and ODU was only one game behind them.

Needing to rebound from the loss to the Monarchs, The Pride would struggle at home with their next opponent, the UNCW Seahawks.   UNC -Wilmington played with much more heart than they did a year ago when Charles Jenkins' nationally recognized eight point play doomed Benny Ross.  Hofstra used a 14-2 second half run to erase a five point deficit.  In a game that I will always remember for the T-shirt toss and a bad intentional foul call, the Pride would end up winning 66-57 to improve to 6-1 in conference.

Later that week, Hofstra traveled to Williamsburg to take on a William and Mary team that was a lot better than their record indicated.   The Tribe led a good part of the game but somehow the Pride kept the game close at halftime.  Later in the second half, Charles Jenkins put Hofstra up to stay and they held off W&M for a hard earned 67-64 road win.   Hofstra was now 7-1 in conference with one more game left at home before they reached the halfway point.

And what a game to end the first half of the regular conference season.  At the Mack, Hofstra took on a very talented James Madison team, led by another eventual all First Team CAA forward Denzel Bowles, in front of a very lively Lions Den student section on ESPN Regional.   Little did the Hofstra fans in attendance and those watching the game on TV know that they were going to see another overtime classic from two teams with a history of overtime games.  The Pride went out to a 13-5 lead only to see the Dukes storm back with a 15-0 run to take a nine point lead at the half.  JMU extended the lead to 50-36 before Hofstra rallied to cut the deficit to three with eleven and a half minutes left.

Madison would again extend the lead to eleven, 69-58 with six and a half minutes left , but again Hofstra would rally and force overtime on two free throws by Shemiye McLendon.  Then in overtime, with the Hofstra PA system playing "Don't Stop Believing" by Journey, the Pride would be up three late in the OT period.   It was here that Cassara made the second of his best three coaching moves of the season, having McLendon foul Julius Wells before he could get a shot off.  Wells hit the first free throw and intentionally missed the second.  Jenkins, who had 32 points on the night, got the rebound and celebrated with the Hofstra Lions Den as the Pride won 92-90 in overtime.

In exciting fashion, Hofstra finished the first half of the conference season at 8-1, 14-6 overall, tied for first place in the CAA.  A team that had started January at 7-5 won seven of their next eight games.   The second half of the conference season awaited them, as did a game on national TV vs. an 8-1 VCU team for sole possession of first place.   What also awaited the Pride was their most difficult challenge of the season.   How they answered that challenge will be in Part II of this retrospect.