Monday, December 29, 2014

Brooklyn Winter Hoops Festival at Barclays

The Barclays Center opened in September 2012.    It has quickly become a sports and entertainment force in thwe New York City Metro Area.  The Barclays Center is the home of the Brooklyn Nets and the soon to be home of the New York Islanders.   It has also become a major stop for big name music tours, as evidence by Elton John playing at Barclays on New Year's Eve.

The Barclays Center has also quickly become a major venue for college basketball, having hosted many games and tournaments in the past two plus years.   Yesterday, for the third college basketball season in a row, Barclays was hosting its Brooklyn Hoops Winter Festival, a triple header of college basketball, featuring local and national teams.   It also happened to be the third season in a row that my good friend Tony Terentieff, aka Tieff, and I attended a event.    In the past, teams such as West Virginia, Michigan, Boston College, VCU and Kansas State among others, have played in the Brooklyn Hoops Winter Festival.

This season's event had more of a local flavor to it, with nationally ranked St John's heading the billing, along with Hofstra, in its second appearance at the Barclays Center and LIU Brooklyn.  The Red Storm, which is the only team to have played in now all three Brooklyn Hoops Winter Festivals, took on the Green Wave of Tulane, which was playing in its second Brooklyn Hoops Winter Festival in a row and has also now played in the Barclays Center three years in a row (they took on Hofstra in another Barclays Center tripleheader back in 2012).  The Green Wave have a solid alumni base in New York and again, a contingent of their fans showed up to see their team.   But their fan base paled in comparison to the hometown Johnnies, with their legions of fans in attendance.

I had got my tickets through the Hofstra ticket office, so naturally we were sitting in the Pride section of the arena.   When we got there, you could quickly see that they "evil black curtained" off the upper level seats, so only the lower bowl seats were accessible for the tournament.   It was only fitting that Fairfield would be playing in the third game of the festival.  I am sure the Bridgeport Arena native Stags felt at home at Barclays.

As a sea of red watched on, Tulane, which had won nine of its first eleven games, albeit their best win was over a struggling Mississippi State team, came out strong.  Louis Dabney scored the first five Green Wave points and Tulane took a 9-6 lead.  

But the Red Storm are ranked #17 nationally for a reason and that reason is their defense, which clamped down on the Green Wave.  In the span of less than three minutes, St John's forced four turnovers.  Meanwhile Sir'Dominic Porter was starting to go to town, as he had two baskets and assisted on another on an 8-0 spurt to put St John's up 14-9.  

Tulane called timeout to try to stop the bleeding.  Briefly, it seemed to work, as Payton Henson hit a jumper to bring the Green Wave to within three, 14-11.  However, that's as close as Tulane would get the rest of the way.   That was due in large part to the aforementioned Red Storm defense.

During a 17-5 St John's run that put the Johnies up 31-16 and basically the game out of reach for Tulane, the Red Storm held the Green Wave to 2 of 12 from the field.  St John's swarms to the ball, plays great help defense and they have the ultimate intimidator inside, Chris Obekpa.    If Obekpa is not blocking a shot, he is altering one.  In one instance, his mere presence resulted in Tulane Center Ryan Smith, figuring Obekpa would challenge the shot, chucking a shot high off the backboard so that Obekpa couldn't block it.  Obekpa, who never attempted to block the shot, just watched as the shot banged off the glass and then clanked hard off the rim. Obekpa had four blocks on the game in twenty two minutes of action.

After Tulane had come within eleven, 33-22,  the Red Storm would score the final fourteen points of the first half to put the game away.  A Phil Greene IV alley oop pass to Rysheed Jordan for the dunk capped the run, putting St John's up 47-22 at the half.  Pointer was especially dominant in the first half, scoring fifteen points and adding three assists.  

The last twenty minutes of the game basically came down to whether Tulane could keep the losing margin under thirty points.  Tulane managed to hold serve, scoring as many points as St John's did in the second half.   The Green Wave may have found solace in that, but they still lost by twenty five, 82-57.

Pointer and Dominic Harrison were responsible for most of the offense St John's needed on the day.   They would combine for forty five points on a very efficient 16 of 26 shooting from the field and 12 of 13 from the line.  Pointer was a stat sheet stuffer, as he had four assists, four rebounds, seven steals and two blocks to go with his twenty four points.  Jordan added twelve points for the Red Storm, who had fourteen steals on the day.

Dabney and Jonathan Stark were the only double figure scorers for Tulane, scoring twelve and fifteen points respectively on 11 of 26 shooting from the field.  The rest of the Green Wave shot 11 of 32 from the field.

The second game of the tripleheader featured a local battle between Hofstra, my long time home as a student and as an administrator, and LIU Brooklyn.  The Pride came into the game with their first losing streak of the season after winning seven of their first nine games.  They lost at Columbia and followed that up with a loss at home to LaSalle.  Meanwhile, the Blackbirds had won four games in a row after losing their first seven games.  One streak was guaranteed to continue at the end of this game.

The start of this game somewhat mirrored the start of the first game.  LIU Brooklyn came out the aggressor and took a 7-5 lead.  After Dion Nesmith tied the game at seven, both teams went scoreless for the next three minutes.  Finally, Moussa Kone would hit on a layup to put Hofstra in front to stay, 9-7.   Gerrell Martin hit a three pointer to cut the Pride lead to one, 11-10, with a little under twelve minutes left in the half.

From there it was all Hofstra, as the Pride outscored the Blackbirds 34-15 the rest of the half.   Ameen Tanksley did most of the damage, scoring fifteen first half points, thirteen of which came over the final eight minutes and seven seconds of the first half.   His jumper with forty seconds in the half gave Hofstra a 45-25 halftime lead.  For the second game in a row, a team took a twenty point or more lead into the half.

LIU Brooklyn showed more life than Tulane did after halftime, as the Blackbirds outscored the Pride 12-4 over the first three plus minutes of the second half.  Martin Hermannsson, part of LIU Brooklyn's dynamic Iceland freshman duo, along with Elvar Fridriksson, assisted on two straight baskets.  The second of which, a layup by Iverson Fleming, cut the Hofstra lead to twelve, 49-37.

But Hofstra had their dynamic duo of their own in Tanksley and point guard Juan'ya Green.  Green assisted on Tanksley's three pointer to start a 10-0 spurt over the span of about three minutes.  Moussa Kone's layup capped the spurt, which put the Pride up 59-37.  

From there, LIU Brooklyn would only get as close as fifteen, 70-55 with a little over six minutes left.  From there, the dynamic duo of Tanksley and Green would seal the deal, as they led Hofstra on a 14-0 run, capped again by another assist by Green, this time on a three pointer by Bernardi to make the score 84-55.

This resulted in a huge roar from the Hofstra crowd.  But the roar was not a result of Bernardi's three.  The Pride faithful had been keeping track of Green's stats on the scoreboard.  Green easily had over double digits in points by scoring the first two baskets of the second half for Hofstra.   Then he grabbed his tenth rebound with a little over three minutes left.

But what Green is really known for is being an assist machine, as he averages nearly seven assists per game.  When he fed Bernardi for the three, he had a triple double, 15 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists.  It was the first time in Hofstra program history that a player had a triple double in a game.  When you think of all the Hofstra greats including Rich Laurel, Speedy Claxton, Loren Stokes, Antoine Agudio and Charles Jenkins, none of them ever had a triple double.  Green is the first.

Hofstra would go for the 88-62 win over LIU Brooklyn.   The Pride shot over fifty percent from the field, including a smoldering 14 of 27 from beyond the arc.  Tanskley led the long range assault as he scored a career high 32 points on 12 of 20 shooting from the field.  He also added eight rebounds, as the Pride outrebounded the Blackbirds 45-33.  Nesmith added thirteen points off the bench, while Bernardi added twelve points, all from beyond the arc.

For LIU Brooklyn, Nura Zanna led the way with fourteen points and nine rebounds.  Fleming added thirteen points off the bench and Joel Hernandez added another ten off the pine for the Blackbirds.  LIU Brooklyn was held to thirty five percent shooting, including 7 of 24 from three point land.

After the Hofstra game ended, Tieff and I headed out of Barclays.  There was still the third game between Loyola-Maryland and Fairfield.  But the Stags would be left to deal with the Evil Black Curtain on their own.  It was time to head back to Long Island for our traditional Dairy Queen Victory Blizzard at the newest DQ franchise in Levittown.    Nothing like a DQ Blizzard, especially after a win for the alma mater.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Columbia Outlasts Hofstra in Shootout

My family and I traveled up from South Carolina to Long Island starting Friday afternoon.   We got to Levittown, New York yesterday evening at 6:30 pm, just in time for me to spend a few bucks on a monthly Columbia Athletics - Ivy League Digital Network online streaming pass for my iPad.   I was looking forward to seeing Hofstra take on Columbia.

Columbia recently received a lot of well earned press for their showing at #1 Kentucky.   The Lions led a good part of that game until the Wildcats rallied in the second half for the 56-46 win.   But the game showed how good a team Columbia was, especially defensively.   The Lions held the Wildcats to thirty seven percent shooting from the field, including stifling Kentucky from beyond the arc, as Kentucky hit on only two of seventeen three point attempts.   The Kentucky game was typical of Columbia's defensive play, as they had only allowed one team to score more than sixty points in a game on the season, Loyola, heading into their game with Hofstra.

The Pride on the other hand, have been an offensive juggernaut this season.  They are averaging eighty one points per game, seventeenth in the nation.   Hofstra is especially deadly from three, with two players, Ameen Tanksley and Brian Bernardi, each shooting over forty nine percent from three.  The Pride shoot forty three percent from beyond the arc on the season.    

So it was the irresistible force meeting the immovable object at Francis Leven Gymnasium last evening, or so it seemed.   What happened was Columbia was willing to play along with Hofstra, especially one Lions' guard in particular.

From the start, the pace favored Hofstra. With not even five minutes gone by, both teams put up a lot of points quickly, with Dion Nesmith tying the game at nine by hitting all three free throws after he was fouled on a three point attempt.

As they did all night, Columbia moved the ball well on the Hofstra zone, especially early on as the Lions hit on six of their first eight three point attempts.  Steve Frankoski would hit three of those and Maodo Lo added two three pointers in the first eight minutes of the game.  Jeff Coby's three pointer made it 20-14 Columbia with a little over eleven minutes left in the half.

The Pride did a better job guarding the Lions on the three over the last ten minutes of the half as Columbia would miss on their last ten three point attempts in the half.   This allowed Hofstra to make a late 12-5 spurt in the half.  Brian Bernardi's three pointer put the Pride up 38-34 at the half.

Considering the Pride put up almost as many points in the first half as Bucknell did in an entire game in a loss against the Lions earlier this season (thirty nine), you would figure coach Kyle Smith told his team to slow down the pace in the second half.    

Nope, the pace was just fine for Columbia, especially for Lo in the second half.  

Lo came out gunning in the start of the second half, first burying a three, then hitting on a layup to give Columbia a 39-38 lead.    The Pride would take the lead back, as Juan'ya Green scored four straight points to give Hofstra a 44-41 lead. 

Columbia would respond with a 8-2 spurt.   Lo again led the way, getting an old fashioned three point play to put the Lions back in front 49-46.   But Tanksley, who is shooting fifty six percent from beyond the arc this season, would nail his only three pointer of the game to tie the contest at forty nine.

With the game tied at fifty one, the Lions went ahead on a Luke Petrasek layup.  Then Lo buried another three to extend the lead to five, 56-51.   The Pride would hang around over the next few minutes.  Niesmith's  layup cut the Columbia lead to three, 61-58 with a little less than eight and a half minutes left in the game.

The Lions would then go on a 12-5 spurt over the next nearly four minutes, with Lo leading the charge.  Lo would score the first eight points during that run, the final points coming on his seventh three pointer of the game to put the Lions up 69-61.   Petrasek would score the final four points of the spurt on a free throw and a three pointer to put Columbia up ten 73-63 with about four and a half minutes left.

Hofstra would rally, scoring the next eight straight points, the last six coming from Green on a three pointer and an old fashioned three pointer.  Green's foul shot on the three point play cut the Lions lead to two, 73-71 with 2:15 left.  

The Pride played terrific half court defense on the next Columbia possession forcing Lo in the corner to put up an errant three pointer off the side of the backboard as the shot clock expired.   But Hofstra failed to put a a body on Columbia's Kyle Castlin on the rebound.  The ball deflected off the backboard directly to Castlin who put back the rebound for an easy layup and the likely dagger in Hofstra's heart.  

Hofstra had three chances on their next possession to cut Columbia's lead to two or one, but failed to capitalize on the offensive rebounds,  which was a microcosm of the whole game.  On second chance points, Columbia outscored Hofstra 12-3 for the game.    

The Lions finally got the rebound and Castlin was fouled by Green, which was his fifth foul in the game. Castlin  hit both free throws to put Columbia up 77-71 with thirty eight seconds left.  A few seconds later, Hofstra coach Joe Mihalich, tired of the questionable officiating for both sides all night, finally had enough after a Bernardi foul, and got a technical.  Lo for one of the rare times all night, missed the free throw shot.  

The Pride did their best to keep it close, but in the end the Lions had the hard fought 82-77 win in which was a very entertaining game.

Lo was a thorn in the Pride's side all night.   After putting sixteen on Kentucky, the Lions' leading scorer on the season went off on Hofstra, scoring 29 points on 10 of 21 from the field, including 7 of 15 from beyond the arc.   The Lions went 13 for 35 on three point attempts. Frankoski added fourteen, including shooting four of nine from beyond the arc and Castlin added 13 points.

As they have all season, the  Pride again had balanced scoring, as four players scored in double figures.  Green led Hofstra with 19 points but he only shot 5 of 19 from the field.  Nesmith and Tanskley each had 18 and Malik Nichols added 10 points.  Bernardi added 8 points for Hofstra, who got 73 of their 77 points from their starters.  The Lions' bench outscored the Pride's bench 33-4.

What I got out of the game was the following;  As for the Lions, Columbia does a great job of guarding the three.  They held Hofstra to 8 of 24 from beyond the arc.   Green and Tanksley were a combined 2 of 13 from beyond the arc.    It does leave them susceptible to drives to the basket as Green and Tanskley did several times.   The Lions moved the ball very well on offense and Lo is a handful to guard.   

Columbia really misses though their leading scorer from last season,  Alex Rosenberg, out for the season due to injury.  They don't have an inside scoring presence to make up for him.   Even with their small lineup, Hofstra outscored Columbia 20-18 in the paint.   

Still, Kyle Smith has done a very nice job with this team, which definitely has talent, despite what some "basketball experts" say (   The Lions could not have played such a good game against Kentucky without having talented players.   Imagine if Smith had a healthy Rosenberg.

As for the Pride, they showed their offense is legit.  After holding Kentucky to 56 points, the Lions gave up 77 to Hofstra.  Their entire starting lineup nearly all scored in double figures.   They remind me of the 2006-07 Pride, in that they have outstanding guards in Green, Tanksley, Bernardi and Nesmith, all who started with Nichols being the lone forward.    What was also encouraging is, that after struggling for most of the year from the free throw line, the Pride shot 21 of 25 from the charity stripe.

What Hofstra needs to work on is their quickness in getting to shooters on zone defense.   Unlike the App State game, where Hofstra did a good job getting out to defend the three,  the Pride seemed to be a step slow guarding the three yesterday.   It seemed too packed in at times.    Also, Hofstra desperately needs to get an inside scoring presence.  It was great to see Moussa Kone back for the Pride yesterday.  But Rokas Gustys is still hurt and Andre Walker was nowhere to be found yesterday.  The Pride need some frontcourt presence on both defense and offense when they play the likes of Northeastern's Scott Eatherton later in the season in conference play.  

The next Hofstra game, I will get to see in person, on Tuesday vs. LaSalle.  It will be nice to be back at the Mack Center for what should be another good college basketball game.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Iona is Missing Its Pep

If you are one of my marines, aka, the few, the proud, the readers of my site, you know of my love of college pep bands.  There is nothing better than a good college pep band at a basketball game.  It sure beats canned music.  I remember going to LaSalle to see Hofstra face the Explorers in the 2005-06 season.   The LaSalle Pep Band played the entire night.  There was no canned music played over the PA system, just the pep band.  It was awesome.

Over the years, I have talked about my fondness for the VCU Peppas and the George Mason Pep Band, two of the best college bands there are in college basketball.  But one of my favorite bands in particular is the Iona Pep Band, which were a staple at Iona men's home games for years.

In many of my College Hardwood recaps of Iona games over the years, I have devoted many a paragraph to the Iona Pep Band (just do a search of "Iona Pep Band" on my site).  My favorite recap that involved the Iona Pep Band was the game from 2012 where Iona used a 31-0 run to defeat St Peter's 98-61.  The pep band was so killing it that day, I stated the following;
As Matthew and I made our way out of the Hynes Center for perhaps the last time this season, I wondered two things.  One, I thought about whether Iona could not only win the MAAC Championship but also make a run to the Sweet Sixteen this season.  Second, I wondered if the Iona Pep Band hires themselves out to play at parties.

That's how good the Iona Pep Band is (the picture is from that St Peter's game).  I would hire them to play at a party (alas they have to travel to Columbia, South Carolina now for the party).  I even recorded my own video of them above playing "Immigrant Song".   I just wish I had better audio on my iPhone.

What I love about the Iona Pep Band is that for such a small ten piece band, they have a rich sound.  The Iona Pep Band also has an old school, eclectic catalog.  They play anywhere from Led Zeppelin's  "Immigrant Song", to Earth Wind and Fire's "September" to Rick James' "Brickhouse" to the Black Eyed Peas "I Got a Feeling".

They are also fond of playing TV show  and movie themes, including "The Wild Wild West", "Peter Gunn", the James Bond theme song and my personal favorite, a very bouncy version of "I Dream of Jeannie".   Finally, they play the BEST DAMN VERSION of STEELY DAN'S PEG!  Period.

Often I lamented the fact on Twitter that there was no Iona Pep Band at Iona Women's Basketball games.  And for those loyal readers who know, I covered A LOT of Iona Women's Basketball games over the years, so I did a lot of lamenting.

I even got to be Twitter friends with Walter Barrett, the trombone playing leader of the Iona Pep band,   From my friendship with him, I learned the band was hired by Iona, funded by alumni, since the school didn't have a pep band.  Walter had been part of the band for fifteen years.   The band was put together by the previous band leader of people he knew.  They offered students to help out, but over time it just became the regulars.  They are quite likely the oldest college pep band around, but they are also one of the best.

And it was not just me who is a big fan of the Iona Pep Band.   Jaden Daly, Mr. Daly Dose of Hoops himself is a huge fan of the Iona Pep Band.   When I left New York and moved down to South Carolina, Jaden would text me the song selections of the band when he was at Iona home games.   God I missed "Peg"  Thankfully, I've  heard the Iona Pep Band's version so many times, it is permanently, fondly etched in my head.

But something is missing this season for Iona.  The Pep Band.   I found out that the pep band was told that they were being replaced by a student band.   Now I can understand that, except for one thing.

Four games,  No student band.   Just canned music.


It's one thing to tell the pep band to be replaced by a student band.   It's another thing not to have that student band ready.    So the Iona home crowd fans have to listen to canned music.  Canned music can be OK, depending on the person picking the songs. Often the canned music though is made up of  only the current popular hits on the radio and in some cases, like Wagner, the PA system is too loud.  To me, nothing beats a live band playing a unique, fun set, especially with a great brass section, like the Iona Pep Band.

So I have a request to the Iona administration, from a long time friend of the Iona women's and men's basketball programs.  Until your student band is ready to go, please, please, PLEASE bring back the Iona Pep Band.

Living 750 miles away now, I won't be able to hear them play live, but I would love for Jaden Daly to let me know via Twitter that Walt and the gang are playing my favorite songs.

So again, Iona Administration, bring back the Pep Band.  Do it for the Iona fans. Let them hear "Peg" again!

"I know they're gonna love it."

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

In NJIT's Case, There Shouldn't Be Only One

Since the beginning of time, Notre Dame has been an independent in football.  The Fighting Irish have their own television network, NBC, which doesn't stand for the Notre Dame Broadcasting Network, though many think it should.  Notre Dame's independence is of their own choosing.

But the Fighting Irish aren't the only FBS/Division I independents in football. Army, Navy and BYU are independents as well.   Army and Navy, with their rich football history, can stand on their own.  BYU, which has had a long football history as well, first under Lavell Edwards, can also stand on their own, thanks to their own television network and its one billion dollar endowment (that is not a typo).  

In college basketball, there is only one Division I independent.  An independent, unlike Notre Dame and BYU, that would like a conference home.  A basketball program that's deserving of a home.

The New Jersey Institute of Technology, otherwise known as NJIT.   

Their team name is the Highlanders.  If you're like me, you remember the movie "Highlander".  It was about an ancient group of immortals that have searched each other out over centuries, fighting in sword duels, because there can be in the end only one of them.  The tag line for the movie, which spawned several sequels and a syndicated televison show, was "There can be only one". 

Based on NJIT's recent history, it's very fitting.

NJIT became a Division I team in 2006-07.  As they do now, they first played as an independent. They won their first two games against Manhattan and Rider, then proceeded to lose twenty four of their next twenty seven games to finish 5-24.  In 2007-08, they lost all twenty nine of their games. In 2008-09, they lost their first eighteen games, which gave them a fifty one game losing streak before they defeated Bryant.  They would lose their last twelve games to finish 1-30.

In that 2008-09 season, the Highlanders got a new head coach in Jim Engles.  Coach Engles had been a Division I assistant coach for eighteen years before taking over a NJIT.  He had previously been the top assistant coach at Columbia under Joe Jones.   

Engles methodically turned the Highlanders around.  In the 2009-10 season, the Highlanders would win ten games; a nine game improvement.  Their season included two wins over NEC member Wagner and two wins over now Big Sky member North Dakota.  

In the 2010-11 season, NJIT joined the Great West Conference, a conference that was like the last season of the East Coast Conference (Google it).  The Great West Conference had no automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, but at least the Highlanders had a home.  In their inaugural season in the GWC, NJIT again showed improvement under Engles as they finished with a .500 record at 15-15.   They went 9-3 in the regular season in the Great West, but lost their first round conference tournament game.    

In the 2011-12 season, the Highlanders again won fifteen games, including non conference wins over FDU, Lafayette and Army.   They finished 5-5 in the Great West and made it to the tournament championship game before losing to North Dakota.

In the 2012-13 season, NJIT had its first winning season, finishing 16-13.  The Highlanders had wins over Army and South Carolina State.  But more impressively, they had back to back single digit losses to St John's and Seton Hall.   They also lost at Villanova by only ten points.  NJIT would win the last Great West Conference regular season championship, but lost to Houston Baptist in the last Great West Conference Tournament.

After the 2012-13 season, the Great West dissolved.  All but one of its members found homes in other automatic bid NCAA conferences, with most joining the WAC.  All but NJIT. 

Not that NJIT didn't try to find a home.  The school tried to get into the America East but were rebuffed.  Perhaps Binghamton didn't want have another team finish ahead of it.

The Highlanders were now the only Division I Independent.  Last season, the Highlanders went 13-16, three wins less from the prior season.  However NJIT remained very competitive.  They had road wins over Army, New Hampshire, Maine (who they also beat at home), St Francis PA, Delaware State and UMES.

Coach Engles has done a great job building a veteran coaching staff and a roster of players from throughout the country and overseas.  

Coach Engle's staff includes several long time Division I assistants and head coaches.  Brian Kennedy was a former assistant at DePaul and was athletic director of The Hoop Group, one of the most well known leaders in basketball instruction in the country.  Brian's brother is Rob Kennedy, one of my favorite college basketball color analysts, who is also president of The Hoop Group.

Coach Engle's staff also includes Jesse Agel, Tom Brennan's longtime #1 assistant at Vermont.  Agel later became the head coach at Brown University.  Dino Presley is also a longtime Divison I assistant coach, with twenty one years of experience at schools such as Drexel, Towson, St Bonaventure and Marshall.

What may be even more impressive is NJIT's ability to recruit players from outside the New York New Jersey- Pennsylvania area.  Their roster includes players from Maryland, Florida, Texas, Greece and Russia.

I got to see NJIT in person last year at Hofstra when I was back in New York.  I was impressed with the Highlanders, especially their heart.  Several times it looked like Hofstra was going to blow them out of the Mack Center.  But NJIT rallied several times, including cut the deficit to three, 64-61 before losing 75-64.

One of the eight local New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania players on the Highlanders is Chris Jenkins, who played for Hofstra last season as a freshman, averaging twenty one minutes and five points per game.  He played in that game against NJIT, scoring twelve points on four three pointers.   Jenkins decided to transfer to NJIT knowing that playing time at Hofstra would be limited with Juan'ya Green, Ameen Tanskley and Brian Bernardi all now eligible along with returning players Dion Nesmith and Jamall Robinson.  So Jenkins returned home to New Jersey and will be eligible for the Highlanders next season.

Entering this season, the Highlanders were still in search of a home.  To impress possible conference suitors, Coach Engles and his staff did their best to schedule tough teams.  They were able to play road games against St John's, Duquesne, Marquette, Michigan, Holy Cross, Villanova and South Alabama among other Division I schools.   In fact, they only have four games against non Division I schools.

And the Highlanders have stepped up to the challenge.  After losing to St John's, they barely lost at Marquette by five points, 62-57, after being up at halftime.   Then they won at A-10 member Duquesne 83-81.  

Then this past Saturday, the Highlanders got their biggest win in the history of their program. NJIT went up to Ann Arbor and knocked off #17 Michigan 63-61.   They hit on eleven of seventeen three pointers.  Sophomore guard Damon Lynn led the way with twenty points.

The Highlanders became instant celebrities with wins over Michigan.  Stories came out about how NJIT is the lone Division I independent and how they play in a small 1500 seat gym, while Michigan had a $52 million renovation in their arena, complete with a waterfall. In fact, as Adam Zagoria points out,  the NJIT bookstore is receiving a lot of orders for NJIT gear from Michigan State, Ohio State, Indiana and other Big Ten fans just so they can razz Michigan when they play them.

Even though this season is far from over, the Highlanders will be even better next season.  Their top three scorers, Lynn, Ky Howard and Winfield Willis all return next season.  Plus they will be adding the three point threat in Jenkins.  The future only looks brighter for NJIT.  

Now if they could only find a conference to call home.  Coach Engles pleaded his case after the win over Michigan.
"We're doing everything we need to do to get in a league. I would like to be in a conference. My kids deserve it. We shouldn't be the only independent in the country. We're not Notre Dame football. I don't understand why someone in the NCAA -- or someone -- hasn't taken more of an active role in this. We have Division I athletes. We've gone through the reclassification process. We've done everything the NCAA has asked us. ... We need to be involved with everyone else."
NJIT continued their winning ways last night at home, at the Estelle and Zoom Fleisher Athletic Center in Newark New Jersey, the aforementioned 1500 seat gym with a sauna and two weight rooms.  They rallied from behind to defeat St Francis NY 66-64.   Lynn scored twenty two points in the victory.   The students stormed the court after the 4-5 Highlanders' second win in a row.  Considering they hadn't beat the Terriers in the past four years, a court storming for an independent team with no home is okay in my book.

For the Connor MacLeod of Divison I college basketball, Coach Engles and his Highlanders are tired of "There can be only one", as far as their independent status is concerned.  They want a conference to call home and they deserve one.

You know America East, ten is a nice round number.  Make NJIT the tenth America East school.

PS - Coach Engles is one of the few Division I basketball coaches who follows me on Twitter ( IO follow him as well) and has for several years.  I greatly appreciate that and I am very happy for the success he has had with his team.  I hope he finds a conference home for his Highlanders very soon.  That conference will be much better off having his team and someone of Coach Engles' character.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Finding Our Religion (Recap of Hofstra vs. Appalachian State)

It was about 9:45 AM yesterday, on a crisp Sunday morning in Columbia, South Carolina when Matthew, aka my nine year old color analyst, and I set out on our journey.  As I drove our 2008 Honda CRV down Forest Drive heading towards the ramp for I-77 North to Charlotte, we came up on the intersection of Shandon Baptist Church, where Matthew plays for their Upward Bound 4th grade basketball team.   A Columbia City Police Officer was in the role of crossing guard, stopping traffic to allow the church's congregation members to turn left into the long church entrance for 10:00 AM mass.

After about thirty seconds, she let traffic, which included us, to go through.   For those entering Shandon Baptist Church on a beautiful Sunday, they were about to get their religion.   On this day, two Lutherans, one baptized (Matthew) and one confirmed (me), were going to find our other religion.  Our religion this Sunday was a Hofstra college basketball game, which was three hours away in Boone, North Carolina.

It all started on my birthday on February 15, 2011.  I had been a long time season ticket holder for Hofstra and my blog, the College Hardwood was in the midst of its sixth season.  But until that day, which happened to be my birthday, Matthew had never gone to a Hofstra basketball game.

Finally, as a birthday present to me, Matthew joined me for the game between William and Mary and Hofstra at the Mack Arena.   And what a game it was!  This was the famous game where Charles Jenkins had not one, BUT TWO buzzer beaters; one to force overtime and one to win the game in overtime.   The shots made Sportscenter that night and are permanently, well hopefully permanently, up on a Hofstra video on YouTube.

That day, which I chronicled in one of my favorite all time articles on my blog, forever changed Matthew.  Matthew not only became a die-hard college basketball fan, but a lover of basketball in general.  If Matthew isn't playing baseball, his first love, he often has a basketball in his hand.  And come January, he will play in organized basketball games for the first time in his life.

During the 2011-12 season, where I covered fifty nine Division I games for the Mid Majority as well as my site, Matthew was my frequent companion.   He truly was my color analyst for thirty three games during that season.  Matthew was even the subject of one my articles that season, as I featured the Binghamton-Hofstra game around his view of a college basketball game.

When we finally moved down to Columbia, South Carolina in February 2013 as a family, after I had been in Columbia for sixth months already, one thing that changed was no longer seeing Hofstra on a regular basis.   Matthew and I would see them when we were up in New York to visit, including last season, when they defeated NJIT at the Mack Center.  Yes, the same NJIT team that defeated #17 Michigan in Ann Arbor on Saturday.

But as the ever observant Matthew pointed out to me, this was the first time we would see Hofstra outside of being in New York.   This was something I took for granted all the years I made road trips to Drexel, Towson, Delaware and of course, to Richmond for the CAA Tournament, among many other places to see Hofstra college basketball games.

Appalachian State, Hofstra's opponent on Sunday, is located in Boone, North Carolina, which is a three hour trip from Columbia.   Boone is located in the Blue Ridge Mountains and is about 3300 feet above sea level.   To get to Appalachian State from Columbia, basically you take I-77 North to I-485 West, to I-85 South and then NC Route 321.

Route 321 takes you from Gastonia, through Hickory, Lenoir, scenic Blowing Rock and finally to our destination, Boone.    Along the way you will find a lot of local North Carolina furniture stores, antiques, general stores and trading posts and a huge gem and fossil shop.  Route 321, especially towards Blowing Rock and Boone, is a very windy, scenic road as you cut through the mountains and also leads to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

You will also find on Route 321 Tweetsie Railroad and Wild West Theme Park, one of the first theme parks in the United States.   The 200 acre theme park is open between April and October and features two vintage steam locomotives, which you can take on a 3 mile ride.   The park first opened in 1957.

As I noted previously, on the way to Appalachian State, you also pass through Blowing Rock, a very scenic town, which features "The Blowing Rock",   The Blowing Rock is "an immense cliff" that's 4000 feet above sea level and where if you stand on the cliff and throw out a light object over the gorge below, the winds will actually blow the object back to you.  Blowing Rock holds several festivals a year, including Winterfest on January 25 and 26,

We reached Boone around 12:45 PM.   It's a town of about 17,000 people, which about matches the student population of Appalachian State.  Appalachian State University was formed in 1899 and sits on 1300 acres of land.

The impressive Holmes Convocation Center stands at the entrance to the university,   It's an 8500 seat all purpose arena that opened in November, 2000 with a basketball game between North Carolina and Appalachian State.    The school's colors are gold and black and the inside of the arena holds true to their school colors.  If you are a Steelers fan, this is the arena for you.

I parked the CRV in a parking garage on Rivers Street, a five minute walk from the Holmes Dome, as it is affectionately called.  When we got to the Northwest entrance, we found several Hofstra fans had made the trip, including three recent Hofstra alums that worked at WRHU and now live in  Winston Salem and Durham, North Carolina.   They knew me from my tweets with Defiantly Dutch, aka Jerry Beach.

The helpful Mountaineers' staff saw us all congregated and said that the will call tickets were located on the Southeast entrance, which was a short walk from our current location.   We made the walk to the Will Call entrance and picked up our tickets, then said our goodbyes to each other as we hoped the game would be worth the trip.   Matthew and I then made a short walk down to our seats in Lower Section Nine.

The tickets were left to me by Appalachian State Head Coach Jim Fox.   Jim's brother, Jeff played on the last two Hofstra basketball teams to make the NCAA Tournament in 2000 and 2001.   I am friends with Jeff from his student days at Hofstra Law School, where I used to work.  

Jim Fox is in his first season as Head Coach of the Mountaineers.  Previously, Coach Fox was the Associate Head Coach for Davidson College under Head Coach Bob McKillop.   He was on the coaching staff of Davidson since 2001 and was responsible for recruiting and player development, including one Stephen Curry.  Prior to that, Fox was the associate head coach of St Dominic's in Oyster Bay and the head coach of the AAU Long Island Lightning team.  One of his players was Matt McKillop, Bob's son, who went on to play at Davidson and is now an assistant coach.

After losing their first two games, the Mountaineers had won three straight games in a row, including an upset win at Virginia Tech.   I figured I would see the classic Davidson offense, which prides itself on player and  ball movement.  Having seen several Davidson games in the past two years, I truly appreciate their style of play.

I was also looking forward to seeing the Hofstra team for the first time live this season.  I had followed the Pride on the live streams from the Hofstra Website, including their most recent fourteen point win over Norfolk State, as well as their two games on WatchESPN.   They have an exciting brand of offense and between Coach Fox's style of play and Coach Joe Mihalich's style of play,  Matthew and I expected a high scoring game.

Well, what we got was somewhat different, but nevertheless fun.

Due to injuries to Rokas Gustys and Moussa Kone, the Pride were down to only two big men, Andre Walker and Malik Nichols.   And with the Mountaineers having at least five players that were six foot seven or taller, Hofstra was going to have to work really hard at keeping Appalachian State off the glass.

And the game started right out with one of the Mountaineers big men, Tommy Spagnolo grabbing an offensive rebound and getting fouled on the putback attempt by Walker.  Spagnolo hit one of two free throws to give Appalachian State the early lead.   The Pride would score seven of the next ten points however, as Juan'ya Green nailed a three pointer to give the Pride a 7-3 lead.

The Mountaineers would score the next five straight points as Tab Hamilton's three gave App State an 8-7 lead.  But the Pride would reel off a 12-2 run over the next four plus minutes.  Jamall Robinson's three pointer gave the Pride a 19-10 lead with about ten minutes left in the half.

What was impressing me about Hofstra was not the offense, though the Pride were fine on that end for the first ten minutes.  But it was their defense that was very solid throughout the game.  Appalachian State, with their Davidson style, constant ball and player movement offense, made the Hofstra players really work on defense.  But the Pride were equal to the challenge, forcing three turnovers in that span.

Basketball is a game of runs and it stood to reason that the Mountaineers would respond.  And they did with an 8-0 spurt.  Frank Eaves, Appalachian State's leading scorer on the season, would hit one of two free throws to cut the deficit to one, 19-18.

Hofstra would have a spurt of their own, First, Matthew called Brian Bernardi's three pointer to put the Pride up four.   Hofstra would end up outscoring App State 8-2 as Ameen Tanksley continued his torrid three point shooting on the season with another bomb from beyond the arc to make it 27-20.  The Pride had several chances to extend the lead but failed for the most part.   As a result, the Mountaineers behind Eaves, chipped away at the lead and were only down 29-26 at the half.

After Bernardi nailed another three to put Hofstra up six, 32-26, Appalachian State made a concerted effort to use their size to their advantage. Spagnolo and Griffin Kinney dominated the smaller Pride lineup over the next three minutes, either scoring or grabbing offensive rebounds at will.  They combined for all nine of the Mountaineers' points in that span, with Spagnolo putting Appalachian State ahead 35-34.

Neither team would score for the next three minutes in what became a defensive struggle.  Finally, Nichols, who is a very explosive player, scored on a layup to give Hofstra the lead back at 36-35. Jacob Lawson would give Appalachian State the lead back on a dunk, 37-36.

The Pride would regain the lead, but they would be hampered by their one negative constant on the season; free throw shooting.   Over the next two minutes, Tanksley and Nichols would combine to miss on all four of their free throw attempts.   What could have been a nine point lead, was only a five point lead, 42-37, after Nichols hit another layup.

The Mountaineers took advantage and trimmed the lead back to two, 44-42 on a Jake Babic three pointer.   Off a Bernardi missed three point attempt, Appalachian State had a chance to tie but missed a layup with 7:32 left.  That would be as close as the Mountaineers would get the rest of the game.

Over the next three and a half minutes, Hofstra would outscore Appalachian State 10-2.  They did this by attacking the basket, either by scoring layups or getting fouled.  This time, the Pride would hit four of their five free throws; two by Tanksley, two by Green.  Tanksley's layup and one gave Hofstra a 54-44 lead with just under four minutes left in the game. Tanksley would miss on the free throw for the three point play, but the damage was done.

From there, the Mountaineers would only score seven more points in the game, five of which came on free throws as the Pride clamped down on them.  With a little over three minutes left, Green did a three sixty spin move in the lane for a layup.  Words could not do that layup justice.  The Pride would also hit ten straight free throws in a row and went on to win 68-51, in a game that was closer than the final score appeared.

The Pride showed nice balance on offense, with five players in double figures scoring.   Green led the way with seventeen points, while Tanksley added thirteen.  Dion Nesmith came off the bench to score eleven points while Bernardi and Nichols each had ten.  What was really impressive was the Pride had twelve assists and only four turnovers, while forcing fifteen Mountaineers' turnovers.

Eaves was the only double figure scorer for Appalachian State, scoring thirteen points, including seven of eight from three free throw line.  Eaves is 47 of 56 from the line on the season, shooting 84 percent from the line.  Over his last five games, Eaves has had fifty four free throw attempts, over ten a game.

What hurt Appalachian State was the Mountaineers shooting 3 of 17 from beyond the arc.  For a Davidson type offense to succeed, there must be solid three point shooting.   Coach Fox didn't get it from his team on Sunday and thus struggled offensively.   But I am confident over time, his team will succeed as they get used to that style of play.

Matthew and I headed home.  We wished we had more time to explore the Blowing Rock/Boone area. But it was a Sunday evening and Matthew had school on Monday.   As a result, our dinner was an Arby's along the way on Route 301, not the local establishment I was hoping we would dine at in Boone.

But Hofstra won and it turned out to be another successful road trip and now I know a little more about western North Carolina.    Our next opportunity to see Hofstra is back in New York on December 23 when we are visiting family on Long Island for the holidays starting that prior weekend.  The Pride play the Explorers of LaSalle at the Mack Center in what should be another fun contest.

This time we will have a much shorter trip from Levittown to Hempstead to find our religion.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Staley Wins 300th Career Game as Gamecocks Defeat 49ers

Entering last night's contest with Charlotte, Dawn Staley had 299 career wins as a head coach, 127 of which had come at the University of South Carolina.    There was little doubt that she would get her milestone Thursday evening at Colonial Life Arena as her #1 ranked team faced a 49ers team that entered the contest having lost five straight games.  The surprise came in the effort of Charlotte.

As per usual, the Gamecocks wanted to use their height advantage and looked to score inside right from the tip-off.  Center Ibiam Elem was fouled in the act of shooting and hit her two free throws for the first two points of the game.  The 49ers responded with an unusual game plan, go inside on the taller Gamecocks front line,  Charlotte forward Olivia Rankin, a player who only averages four points per game, matched her season average quickly with two straight baskets off post plays and the 49ers took a 4-2 lead.

South Carolina responded with six straight points.  Elem was responsible for four of those points and her jumper, which gave her six early points, put the Gamecocks up 8-4.   The Gamecocks would slowly extend the lead to five, 16-11 on an A'ja Wilson jumper with about fourteen minutes left in the half.

Charlotte answered back, outscoring South Carolina 8-2 over the next two minutes.  The 49ers leading scorer on the season, Lefty Webster would score six of the eight 49ers points in that spurt.  Her jumper gave Charlotte a 19-18 lead.

South Carolina tied the game on an Alaina Coates free throw, then regained the lead for good with a Tina Roy three pointer.   The Gamecocks would extend their lead to five, 26-21 on two more free throws by Coates.   However, Charlotte refused to go away as their second leading scorer on the season, Hilary Sigmon nailed a three pointer and with about seven and a half minutes left in the first half, the score was 26-24 South Carolina.

For twelve and a half minutes, the Gamecocks were in a battle with the 49ers.  But as shown throughout the season, South Carolina was capable of huge runs at any time.  The time finally came with 7:38 left in the half.

The Gamecocks would outscore the 49ers 20-2 over the next seven minutes and 37 seconds. Tiffany Mitchell, the SEC Player of the Year and Gamecocks' leading scorer, would score seven of those points, including at three pointer to make the score 44-26.  The run was highlighted though by a sweet no-look pass from Bianca Cuevas to Wilson for a layup.  Coates would cap the run with a layup to make the score 46-26.

But just as it looked like the Gamecocks would enter the locker room up twenty at the half, Cuevas inexplicably fouled Charlotte's Ayanna Holmes.  Holmes would hit two free throws and we went to the half with South Carolina up 46-28.

At the start of the second half, everyone figured that the Gamecocks would continue right where they left off from at the end of the first half and put the 49ers away.  Charlotte had other ideas.

The 49ers would hit on all of their first six field goal attempts in the second half.   Webster, who was a thorn in the Gamecocks' side the entire game, nailed another jumper to cut the Gamecocks lead to thirteen, 55-42 with fifteen minutes left in the half.   A team that had lost five straight games and had lost their most recent game in a tournament in Mexico to Princeton by thirty points, was fighting tooth and nail with the #1 team in the country for twenty five minutes.

But the height differential between the 49ers and the Gamecocks proved to be too much in the end. Despite their early second half offensive flurry, Charlotte could not keep South Carolina from scoring inside.  Eventually the Gamecocks started pulling away, going up by as many as twenty five points several times, the last being 82-57 before Charlotte scored the last four points to make the final 82-61 and give Staley her 300th career game.

The Gamecocks again showed the balanced scoring that is going to make them very difficult to beat this season.  Six players scored between nine and seventeen points for the Gamecocks.  The freshman Wilson led the way with seventeen points off the bench and Coates came off the bench as well to score fifteen points, The Gamecocks had a 41-8 advantage on bench points. Ibiam scored sixteen points and Welch had ten points, as South Carolina outscored Charlotte 46-20 in the paint. Mitchell and Tina Roy each had nine points for the Gamecocks, who shot fifty five percent from the field.

Charlotte, a WNIT team last season, had to be proud of the fact that they had the highest field goal percentage of any team that has faced South Carolina this season.  The 49ers shot forty five percent from the field for the game and fifty four percent from the field in the second half.  No team had shot higher than thirty eight percent against the Gamecocks coming into the game.  Webster led the 49ers with seventeen points and Sigmon, who was a perfect 3 for 3 from beyond the arc, added thirteen points.

South Carolina now faces their most difficult road game of the season, a matchup with #8 Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium on the campus of Duke.  Having been there two years ago for an Iona -Duke women's basketball game, I can tell you that place will be really loud on Sunday.   But if the Gamecocks show the balance they did last night and get good three point shooting from Mitchell and Roy,  South Carolina will get Staley her 301st victory.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

South Carolina Defense Suffocates North Carolina Central in 90-26 Win

Much to my chagrin, due to my Little League Baseball coaching and board member duties, I was unable to make the first three South Carolina Women's Basketball games.  But fall baseball finally ended and my color analyst, aka my older son Matthew, and I were able to see the Gamecocks take on the Eagles of North Carolina Central last night at Colonial Life Arena.

South Carolina entered the game as the #1 team in the nation, undefeated at 5-0.  Their latest win was also their toughest contest to date, a 67-63 win over #22 Syracuse in the championship game of  the Junkanoo Jam Tournament in the Bahamas.  The Orange shot thirty eight percent, which mind you is a low field goal percentage.  Still, that was the first time all season the Gamecocks allowed a team to shoot over thirty three percent from the field.  And all the teams that South Carolina defeated entering last night's game were from power or high major conferences - USC (Pac-12), Clemson (ACC), San Diego State (Mountain West), Wisconsin (Big 10) and Syracuse (ACC).

Thus entering Monday night's game against South Carolina, North Carolina Central, A MEAC school that entered the game at 2-3, had a really tall task ahead of them.  It was especially a tall task, considering the Gamecocks had four players six foot four or taller.  And that height played a big part in suffocating the Eagles all night.

It was quickly apparent from tipoff that NCCU was going to have a hard time scoring on the night.  The Eagles won the tip but struggled to get a shot off as the shot clock expired.  The Gamecocks quickly gathered the rebound and Alegisha Welch scored on a fast break layup.   Again on their next possession, North Carolina Central struggled to get a decent shot off.  Again the Gamecocks rebounded and Tiffany Mitchell scored on a fast break layup.   Rinse, lather, repeat.

At the first media timeout, the score was 14-3.   The Gamecocks would add another eight points, capped by an A'ja Wilson three point play.  The six foot five lefty freshman has the quickness of a guard and a fan behind me described her as a young female version of Bill Russell with the way she moves in the paint.  I thought it was a pretty good description of Wilson's skills.   South Carolina was up 22-3 before you could bat an eye.

It was here that NCCU made a smart move and went to a zone, packing their players in on the South Carolina bigs.  Instead of moving the ball to open shooters, the Gamecocks continued to try to work the ball inside, forcing passes to covered frontcourt players, resulting in turnovers.   It allowed the Eagles to outscore the Gamecocks 12-7 over the next four minutes.  The Eagles were now only down fourteen, 29-15 with 5:17 left in the half.

But that's as close as the NCCU would get the rest of the way.  South Carolina would outscore them 10-1 the rest of the half.  The Gamecocks would enter the half leading 39-16 as they finally hit a three pointer from the outside, with Asia Dozier doing the damage.  

After a halftime show that included Cocky leading a large group of kids in The Chicken Dance, the Gamecocks' Mitchell came out and showed light feet of her own.  On the first two Eagles possessions, she stole the ball.  One led to a layup by Mitchell, the other a three point play by Welch.  South Carolina was quickly up 44-16.  

From there, the rout was on.  The Gamecocks stepped up their game on both ends of the court.  South Carolina, which attempted only three three pointers in the first half,  went four for ten from beyond the arc in the second half.  The Gamecocks need to do this so that teams won't pack their zone in on the South Carolina bigs.

Meanwhile, NCCU was held to ten total points in the second half.   When the Eagles had the ball, if it wasn't stolen, it was blocked.  If the shot wasn't blocked, the shot was altered.   North Carolina Central just struggled to get any decent shots off on the evening.  With ten minutes left, the Gamecocks were already up forty, 63-23 and the Eagles would only score three more points in the game.

All that was left was for Coach Dawn Staley to play everyone on her bench, which she did.  All fourteen Gamecocks players played at least two minutes, with twelve of her players playing six minutes or more.  South Carolina would go on to the 90-26 victory.  It was the third time this season the Gamecocks won by fifty or more points; they defeated Clemson by fifty eight points and San Diego State by fifty one points. 

South Carolina shot sixty percent from the field and had five players in double figures scoring.  Wilson came off the bench to lead all scorers with sixteen points.  She would have had over twenty points easily had she hit a few open shots in the paint.  Dozier and Mitchell each had fourteen points.   Welch added eleven points and Elem Ibiam had ten points.  The Gamecocks had twenty three assists.  Khadijah Sessions had eight assists on the night, while Bianca Cuevas had five assists.  

Despite the solid scoring numbers, it was the defensive statistics that were really impressive.  The Eagles only had seven assists while committing twenty eight turnovers, twenty one of which came on steals by the Gamecocks.  Mitchell had seven steals alone for South Carolina, while Sessions had four steals and Cuevas had three steals and two blocks.  The Gamecocks had eight blocks in the game.  NCCU shot only twenty two percent from the field and were outrebounded 40-23.

The Gamecocks return to action with another home game Thursday night against Charlotte, a team that has lost five straight games after winning their first game.  Add to the fact that the Charlotte men's team defeated the South Carolina men's team in the Charleston Classic about ten days ago and things don't bode well for the 49ers.   

Especially facing this defensive juggernaut in the Gamecocks.