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.

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