Thursday, January 2, 2014

Back at the Mack (Recap of NJIT v. Hofstra)

When I was planning my itinerary for my family Christmas vacation trip up to Long Island, I knew that the last activity before heading back to Columbia, South Carolina on New Year's Eve morning was going to be a Hofstra home basketball game on Monday, December 30.   It was only fitting that I would be ending my time in New York at the Mack Center.

When I first started my blog in December 2005, the first game I covered for my blog was Hofstra hosting Delaware in its first CAA home game of the season.   The Pride were up by twenty three points in the second half before coasting to a fourteen point win.  That was the famous 2005-06 Hofstra team that featured Loren Stokes, Antoine Agudio, Carlos Rivera, Aurimas Kieza and Adrian Uter, arguably the best starting five in the history of the Pride/Flying Dutchmen basketball program.  That team was snubbed out of NCAA Tournament berth and instead made the NIT, losing in the quarterfinals to ODU.

Eight years later, here I was, sitting in my old seat, Section 111, Row D, Seat 10, looking at a very empty arena forty five minutes before game time vs. NJIT.  The 3-8 Hofstra team that I would be watching this past Monday night was a far cry from that terrific 26-7 Pride team I saw eight years ago or even the last good Hofstra team from the 2010-11 season with Charles Jenkins.  But some things thankfully never change at the Mack.

As I entered the Mack Center, I saw my old friends Maureen and Maria at the ticket office.   Maureen works there during home games, but she is a teacher at Hofstra's Salzman Day Care Center and she had both my sons while they were there.  Maria is the person I have gladly dealt with for years for season tickets.  Both are terrific people and it was good to see them.

After I got my ticket and my usual Hofstra dinner of a drink, a hotdog and a pretzel with cheese, I made my way into the arena.  Immediately, I saw my good friend, Bob Sugar, who I've known for close to twenty five years.  We've played softball together, won two fantasy baseball championships together and were at each other's weddings.   Bob and I talked for about fifteen minutes catching up about our families.   

Then my long time Hofstra colleague and friend Kenny Tyler came up to say hello while I was talking to Bob.  I worked with Kenny for many years at Hofstra on various physical plant needs while I was at the Law School.   The three of us ended up talking about Hofstra basketball and the good direction it's heading under new coach Joe Mihalich (along with what seems is the lack of calls Mihalich gets at the end of Hofstra home games).   

A few minutes later, I made my way to my seat, which is very close to press row.  First I said hi to Patricia Houston, who I used to work with at Hofstra's Axinn Library and works as an usher at home basketball games.   Press row is also where my good friend Jaden Daly,  who I call "The OmniPresence of New York City Metro College Basketball" was covering the game for his blog, A Daly Dose of Hoops.   I had just seen him a couple of days before on Saturday for both the Seton Hall-St John's Women's Basketball game and the Boston College-VCU game at the Barclays Center.

A few minutes before the game started, my longtime friend and season ticket holder, Bob, who sits directly across from me in Section 112, walked up the stairs to head to his seat.   When he saw me, he said he thought he saw a ghost, since I haven't been at Hofstra in a year since December 2012.  Bob and I caught up about the Hofstra team and University of South Carolina basketball.

A few more people filled the seats at the Mack Center, as the announced attendance of 856 seemed about right.  The Pride were hosting, NJIT,  the sole independent school in Division I College Basketball.   So Jaden, "There can be only one" independent ( you need to know the movie "Highlander").  The Highlanders, coached by Jim Engles, are without a home after the breakup of the Great West, which was a five team, non NCAA bid conference last season.   The other four schools in the 2012-13 season, the last season of the Great West all found homes; Chicago State, Utah Valley and Texas Pan American joined the WAC, while Houston Baptist joined the Southland.

Engles has done a nice job at NJIT.  Entering his sixth season now, Engles coached the Highlanders to their first winning record in Division I last season at 16-12. Engles is the true Tri State Area local basketball coach having assisted at Wagner, Rider and Columbia before taking the head coaching job at NJIT.  His team entered the game with six wins on the season, including wins over Army, New Hampshire, Maine (twice) and Lafayette. 

The Pride jumped out quickly, as they scored the first nine points of the game. Dion Nesmith, who missed three weeks due to meniscus surgery, nailed a three to start the Hofstra run.  Nesmith then assisted on a Jordan Allen basket to make the score 5-0.  Stephen Nwaukoni would end the run with two free throws to put Hofstra up 9-0.

It was during this time that Tieff showed up finally, as his LIRR train was delayed (what a shock).  Them my good friend and "rival blogger", Jerry Beach, aka Defiantly Dutch tweeted as to where I was in the building.   Jaden had to remind him that I was sitting in my old season ticket seat.  Tieff and I would sit with Jerry, his lovely wife Michelle and his absolutely cute daughter Molly in the second half.

NJIT would cut the lead as Ky Howard and Damon Lynn would assist each other on their respective baskets.  Lynn's three, which would be one of many for him on the night, cut the score to 9-5.   Hofstra would respond with a 7-1 spurt to go up 16-6. Then Nigel Sydnor, whose name would result in several Spinal Tap reference tweets, including one where we all hoped that Spinal Tap would recruit Karl Hess to be their drummer, hit a basket and a free throw to cut the Hofstra lead to seven, 16-9.

The Pride would respond with an 11-2 spurt as Zeke Upshaw, an absolute hidden gem of a graduate student find by Mihalich, scored four of the points in that run.  Jordan Allen, who by necessity (Nesmith's injury) has become a point guard, assisted on a Jamall Robinson three, then added a basket to put Hofstra up 27-11 with six and a half minutes left.  

But as has been the case with the Pride for the entire season, they can look good for several minutes, then look stagnant and error prone on offense.  In the span of three minutes, Hofstra committed four turnovers.  NJIT took advantage and went on a 9-1 run during that span.  A Winfred Willis layup cut the lead to eight, 28-20 with 2:46 left in the half.

The Pride outscored the Highlanders 9-5 the rest of the half to take a 37-25 lead into halftime.  Nesmith had a hand in the final six points for Hofstra, scoring four on a layup and two free throws, while assisting on a Chris Jenkins three pointer.  The graduate student Nesmith's basketball career is a very unique story.

Nesmith was a two sport star in high school in New Jersey in basketball and football.  He was actually recruited by Northeastern as a quarterback and was a redshirt freshman for the Huskies.   Well, just like Hofstra did a short time later, Northeastern killed their football program.   Nesmith decided he would play basketball instead and inquired about a spot on the Huskies basketall team, but they had no scholarships available.    Northeastern was kind enough to allow him to transfer to Monmouth to play basketball.

But due to NCAA rules,  Nesmith had to sit out a year.  Why?  Because he switched sports when he transferred, he was not eligible to keep a year of eligibility.   Yes the NCAA, aka the No Clue At All, penalized Nesmith for transferring because he decided to transfer to play basketball instead of football.  In other words, Nesmith was punished for trying to find a school that would give him a scholarship to play a sport when his original school took away his scholarship and didn't have a scholarship in the other sport he played.  

This is another reason why people from Jay Bilas to Jerry Tarkanian have problems with the NCAA.   Their eligibility rulings, which often seem arbitrary, absolutely make no sense in an instance like this case.  Nesmith eventually would play two seasons at Monmouth, graduated and got his degree.  Then due to NCAA's graduate transfer rule, Nesmith transferred to Hofstra for his final season while going to graduate school.   It's ironic that Nesmith would end his college playing career with Hofstra, a school, as noted, just like Northeastern, killed its football program also in 2009. 

Hofstra has had their own history of players, from this season with Eliel Gonzalez to a few seasons ago with Brad Kelleher.   The NCAA ruled that Gonzalez received "partial" approval for his eligibility waiver.  If he makes the necessary academic progress, he will be eligible next season and be eligible for four seasons.   

Meanwhile, Kelleher had originally been ruled ineligible and was out  for the 2009-10 season due to supposedly signing a contract with an Australian pro league.  The general manager of the league in an interview said it was an application form, not a contract.  Eventually Kelleher received eligibilty for part of his senior season and was the starting point guard for the 2010-11 team that made the CAA Tournament Semifinals.

At halftime, Tieff and I made our way to Defiantly Dutch and his family's season ticket seats underneath the Hofstra basket.   It was there that I was greeted by my long time friend, mentor and former boss, Howard Graves.  Howard and I caught up for several minutes and it was great seeing my dear friend who taught me so much in my first administrative position on campus.

Tieff and I spent the second half watching the game with Jerry, Michelle and Molly, who is just absolutely adorable.  We caught up with each other on what's going on with our lives and of course, discussed Hofstra basketball.

The second half saw the Highlanders cut the Pride lead to six, 39-33.  Then Hofstra went on a 9-1 spurt as they buried three shots from beyond the arc.  Robinson sandwiched two three pointers around a Nesmith three pointer to give the Pride 48-34. 

NJIT would again cut the lead to single digits, but a Nwaukoni layup and a Jenkins three put Hofstra back up 53-40 with eleven minutes left in the game.  Defiantly Dutch appropriately compared the reserve Jenkins to "The Microwave" Vinnie Johnson, the longtime bench player for the Detroit Pistons known for his propensity to score quickly/heat up from long range.  Jenkins even looks like Johnson with his six foot four, 215 pound build.

But the Pride couldn't put the Highlanders away.  NJIT scored the next seven points to cut the lead to six, 53-47.  After the "Hofstra Microwave", Jenkins, put the Pride back up nine, 56-47, the Highlanders would respond with an 11-3 spurt over four minutes.   Lynn would bury two three pointers in a row to bring NJIT within one, 59-58 with 4:30 left in the game.  Lynn would hit six three pointers on the night for the Highlanders.

But Nesmith buried a clutch three to put Hofstra back up four, 62-58 with a little over four minutes left in the game,  Upshaw followed with two free throws to extend the lead to six.  Willis would respond for NJIT with a three point play to cut the lead to three, 64-61.

The Highlanders though would not get any closer by being their own worst enemy.  NJIT would go scoreless over the next two and a half minutes, due in large part to three turnovers in that span.  Meanwhile, Hofstra would hit five of their next six free throws, then get a layup from Moussa Kone to go up ten 71-61.   Lynn would hit one last three pointer for the Highlanders, but the Pride scored the final four points on free throws as Hofstra won 75-64.

Nesmith tied Lynn for most points scored on the night with twenty.  He added five assists and two steals.  Upshaw, the Pride's leading scorer on the season, added fifteen points and seven rebounds. Jenkins had twelve points on four three pointers and Robinson added eleven points.  The Pride shot forty eight percent, including ten of twenty two from beyond the arc.   Hofstra is now 4-8 on the season.

Lynn had his twenty points on six of twelve shooting from beyond the arc.   He was their only scorer in double figures as Willis, Howard and Terrence Smith each scoring nine points.  Other than Lynn, the Highlanders shot one of ten from beyond the arc and forty two percent for the game.   NJIT is now 6-10 on the season, not bad for an independent trying to find a home.

After the game,  Michelle, Molly, Tieff and I waited for Dutch and Jaden to finish with the post game press conference.   Coach Mihalich came out later and said hello to us, thanking us for coming out to the game.   Afterwards, the Beach clan, Tieff, Jaden and I went to Colony Diner on Hempstead Turnpike for a post game celebratory meal.    It was a great dinner with great friends. 

My evening ended with all of us saying goodbye out in the diner parking lot.  Afterwards, I dropped Jaden off at Mineola train station so he could make his train back out to Queens.  Then I headed back to where I was staying with my family at my in-laws house in Levittown.

As I drove back down Old Country Road, I thought about how the Hofstra game was a fitting way to finish my vacation trip.  It's been eight years now since I started my blog.   A lot has changed in those eight years.  Along with all the games I have covered in those eight years, I have two sons, many friends due to college basketball and a new job that's seven hundred and fifty miles away from my childhood home.  

But for one night, as the Allman Brothers put it, it was nice to be "Back Where It All Begins".  

It was nice to be back at the Mack. 

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