Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Hofstra Rallies to Win The "Jordan Allen Invitational"

On Monday night, Hofstra hosted 1-9 Sacred Heart in the last non-conference game for the Pride before the start of the CAA conference schedule on Thursday vs. Delaware.   It was also the return of Jordan Allen to the Mack Center.  Allen played two seasons for Hofstra before transferring to the Pioneers.  

Just like their 68-54 win over now 2-10 Florida Atlantic, the Pride would struggle against a seemingly lesser opponent.  An opponent whose only win came in their first game of the season, a win over fellow Connecticut school Quinnipiac.    It was the same old song for the Pride, a lack of defense, a lack of bench play and bad shot selection that was nearly their undoing.

Early on, it was a back and forth affair.  Cane Broome, who was the best player on the court for nearly the entire game, scored the first five Pioneers' points.  Sean Hoehn's three pointer would give Sacred Heart an early 10-8 lead.   But Hofstra's Brian Bernardi answered with two three pointers of his own to put the Pride back in front 14-10.

Next it was a battle of the big men.  Rokas Gustys, who was a force inside all night for Hofstra, would score the Pride's next nine points.  His layup on an assist from Juan'ya Green would put the Pride up 23-19.  However, Sacred Heart's Eyimofe Edukugho, a senior from Nigeria who only averages five points per game, would keep his team in the game, scoring six straight points.  His layup, assisted by Allen would cut the Pride lead to two, 23-21.  Then Allen assisted again on Quincy McKnight's layup and one, which would put the Pioneers up briefly 24-23.   Ameen Tanksley would then hit one of his few baskets all night, a three pointer that put Hofstra up 26-24 with 8:05 left in the half.

It was over the last eight minutes of the half that we would see the Pride's three biggest weaknesses come into play.   First, Sacred Heart would score fifteen of their last seventeen points on layups as the Pride's tallest player on the court for most of that time was the six foot six Nichols as Gustys would pick up his second foul during this time and head to the bench.   Cane Broome would score six straight points, all on layups,  to give the Pioneers a 30-26 lead.  Later, Allen would score five straight points, including a three point play to extend the Sacred Heart lead to eight, 37-29.  

During this time, the Pride went ice cold from the field, or more specifically, from beyond the three point arc.  Abandoning the strong inside work of Gustys, Hofstra settled for shooting, or better yet, clanking three pointers.  They would miss six out of their last seven three point attempts in the half.  The Pride did manage an 8-2 run thanks to Bernardi and Green attacking the basket.   Green's two free throws would cut the deficit to two before Broome's last layup of the first half gave the Pioneers a 41-37 halftime lead.

The first half stats showed the Pride's weaknesses. Sacred Heart would shoot 18 of 32 from the field and out rebounded Hofstra 21-13.  The Pride were also an abysmal 5 of 18 from beyond the arc in the first half.  Thus your halftime score.

You would have figured that Hofstra would have made some halftime adjustments and fix both ends of their play for the start of the second half.   

You thought wrong.

The Pioneers would out score the Pride 9-2 at the start of the second half, as they continued to score at will inside.  Meanwhile Hofstra would turn the ball over twice and miss two outside jumpers.  Their only points during the span came on two Bernardi free throws.  An Edukugho layup would give Sacred Heart their biggest lead of the game, eleven at 50-39.

Down eleven and staring at possibly the worst loss of the season so far for Hofstra, the light bulb came on for the Pride as they remembered their inside game.   Green and Gustys pounded the paint for layups and the Pride cut the deficit to four, 54-50.   But Gustys would pick up his third and fourth fouls and he again headed to the bench.  The lack of the Pride's best post player stymied their run and Sacred Heart would maintain the lead.  

Broome and Allen would combine for six points over a ninety second span.  Broome would have twenty five points with 9:38 left in the game and then assist on an Allen layup that gave Sacred Heart a 65-58 lead with 8:42 left in the game.   

But Broome would never score again.   Yes, you know what happens next.

Over a span of a little more than four minutes, the Pride would go on a 14-1 run, thanks in large part to Green driving the lane for several points and Bernardi burying two three pointers.  Green's layup would give the Pride a 72-66 lead with 4:27 left in the game. 

Allen would keep the Pioneers in the game with two free throws and later a Matej Buovac three pointer would cut the deficit to three, 76-73.  But Green would end the game with four free throws and the Pride escaped with an 80-73 win.

Broome led all scorers with twenty five points, but his game ending scoring drought over the last nine and a half minutes doomed the Pioneers, who lost their sixth game of the season by nine points or less.  Edukugho, a reserve player who had scored no more than eleven points in a game in his career, the opening game of the season win over Quinnipiac, scored seventeen points in sixteen minutes of action.   Allen added eleven points and four assists, showing off the passing skills he had in his first two seasons with Hofstra.   Sacred Heart, who has played nine of their eleven games on the road so far on the season, shot a very solid forty eight percent from the field.

For the Pride, Green led the way with twenty two points, six assists and five rebounds, shooting six of twelve from the field and ten of thirteen from the line.  It was by far his best game in quite a while.  Bernardi added eighteen points, while Gustys had a double double with seventeen points and ten rebounds.  When Gustys scores in double figures, the Pride are 6-0.  Denton Koon added ten points.  Tanksley, who came in as one of the top scorers in the CAA had a very off night, only scoring seven points on two of nine from the field.

The Pride had an terrible night shooting from beyond the arc, as they went eight of twenty seven.  They had much better success from two point range, shooting eighteen of thirty five.   They made up for their lack of success from beyond the arc by going to the line twenty nine times, making twenty of those attempts.

However, two numbers stand out from the game. Sacred Heart had forty two points in the paint. FORTY TWO.  And the Hofstra bench, what there is of it, scored six points.  

Combine those numbers with the Pride's woeful three point shooting and you had the near win by the now 1-10 Pioneers.    The Pride are 263 in the country in two point field goal percentage defense, allowing 51.7 percent per game.  A lot of this has to do with their lack of footwork on the defensive end.  

But also some of it has to do with their shot block percentage defense, ranked #300 in the country.    Yet Sophomore Andre Walker, a six foot ten forward who had three or more blocks in four games last season and who had four blocks and ten rebounds against Wagner last season, another NEC opponent, didn't play at all last night.  Surely Walker could have come in late in the first half when Gustys had to go with the bench with two fouls.    Walker plays thirteen minutes vs. Florida State yet none against Sacred Heart?  Come on.

I've said a lot of things about Tom Pecora over the years, but one thing his Hofstra teams did was play defense and usually had a shot blocking presence like Adrian Uter or Greg Washington.  With Walker barely playing, this team has neither.

And the Pride bench last night was basically Malik Nichols, who scored all six bench points for the Pride, and Desure Buie, who played ten minutes but didn't score.  Justin Wright Foreman played one minute, Walker of course didn't play at all and Jamall Robinson, who averaged nearly ten points a game as a freshman and contributed significant minutes off the bench for Hofstra as a sophomore, is seemingly redshirted for the season.   

I can tell you this much.  They could sure use Allen.   A big man who can pass and shoots high percentage shots (shooting fifty two percent from the field on the season).

I've watched CAA games and gone to many CAA Tournaments the past fifteen years.  Simply put, you can't consistently win in the CAA with a two man bench, especially trying to win three games in three days in Baltimore in March.  

You can't. 

Over the past three games I've watched in person; Stony Brook, Florida Atlantic and now Sacred Heart, I've talked to several Hofstra fans, whether in our seats or talking with them in the stands during halftime etc.  They have the same complaints, so I know it's not just me.  Lack of defense, a lack of commitment to an inside game, too three point happy and a lack of a bench.  It doesn't sound like a recipe for winning the CAA Tournament, which Hofstra was predicted to at the beginning of the season.

The Pride needs to realize these things fast and try to fix them.   Conference play starts Thursday at home vs. Delaware.  

Whether they act on them is another matter.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Daly Dose of Hoops Scouting Report on Red Storm for South Carolina vs.St John's.

As we do at least once a year, my good friend Jaden Daly of "Daly Dose of Hoops" and I guest blog on each other's site. With South Carolina and St John's playing each other tonight at the Mohegan Sun Arena,  I am doing a scouting report of South Carolina on Jaden's site today, while Jaden is scouting St John's on my site.  No one and I mean NO ONE, knows St John's better than Jaden Daly and his fellow staff at Daly Dose of Hoops.  Enjoy.


Hi everyone, Jaden Daly from Daly Dose of Hoops here again, this time giving you a closer look at the St. John's Red Storm as they prepare to take on South Carolina this Tuesday at Mohegan Sun Arena. My staff and I have already seen the Red Storm several times this season and  have gotten to observe closely the rebuilding process in Queens, with equal flashes of brilliance and growing pains for a young roster.

Game Reviews and Quotes

Starting Guards
This is where St. John's is arguably its most experienced, despite its point guard being a freshman. Federico Mussini, a native of Italy, is the rookie in the backcourt, but is the team's leading scorer and passer, and has pulled down a solid three rebounds per game on average. There are times in which he looks to do a little bit too much, but that is not unusual for freshmen at this stage of their first seasons at the collegiate level, so I expect him to make progress on that front. The one knock on Mussini is that he struggles against pressure, which is optimal for South Carolina in that they can get him rattled early and off his game, but when he is in a groove, he's one of the best shooters on the floor. Mussini reminds me a lot of Branden Frazier, who you may remember from his days at Fordham. A combo guard forced into running the point out of necessity (Marcus LoVett being declared ineligible forced St. John's to play Mussini at point guard), results in sometimes his shooting instincts taking over more than they should.

The Red Storm have added a pair of fifth-year seniors to ease the burden on Mussini, and each one has given credibility and experience to the roster in Queens. Durand Johnson, formerly of Pittsburgh, is a reputable outside shooter with a knack for rebounding that is above average for a guard, while Missouri State transfer Ron Mvouika has translated his combination of marksmanship and floor savvy into becoming one of the better wings in the Big East. On their best efforts, either is capable of going for 20 points and 10 rebounds, although you're more likely to see those numbers when you add up their combined stat lines as opposed to expecting it from one individually.

Starting Forwards
If there's one thing the rebuilding process has done for St. John's, it has been the showcase of Christian Jones. Once left for dead on the bench under former coach Steve Lavin, Jones has resurrected himself into a serviceable big man through the first month of the season, averaging over eight points and five rebounds per game. Jones will not overpower you, but he will definitely have no problem bumping and banging for position in the lane. His interior partner, Yankuba Sima, is what the Red Storm envisioned Chris Obekpa to be, only better. At 6-11, Sima is a legitimate NBA prospect if and when he does take his talents to the next level, and what sets him apart from Obekpa is his offensive prowess. Whereas his predecessor was merely a shot blocker and not much else, Sima has flourished on the offensive end, averaging nearly nine points and seven rebounds per game to go with his three-plus rejections. The big man also shoots 49 percent from the field, a respectable number for a freshman center.

St. John's will only play four reserves, and the fourth one just returned from injury on Friday when Malik Ellison rejoined the team after missing eight games due to a foot injury. Ellison, whose father, Pervis, was a former No. 1 overall NBA draft pick, is still trying to find his way after the injury, but had projected to be one of the Red Storm's better options before he went down. Guard Felix Balamou is by far the most seasoned of the reserves, having spent three years in the Lavin regime. When on his best effort, he is capable of doing a little bit of everything, and his averages of seven points and five rebounds per game are career bests. Amar Alibegovic will be two games removed from his finest hour in the win over Syracuse, and the sophomore carries a high-energy presence and deceptively strong shot when inserted into the rotation. Finally, freshman Kassoum Yakwe has shown the most potential since being cleared to compete at the beginning of the month. Lauded for his above-the-rim capabilities, Yakwe has come out of the blocks with 36 points in his first five games, and appears to be gaining traction as he adapts to both his role and the college game.

Strengths and Weaknesses
First and foremost, St. John's most glaring weakness is its youth. Secondly, their bipolar nature early in the season has led some to wonder whether or not their most impressive performances were more fleeting than initially suspected, as they have followed up impressive wins over Rutgers and Syracuse with inexplicable blowout losses to Vanderbilt and Incarnate Word. However, a major strength of the Red Storm is that they are usually in every game they play for a majority of minutes. Chris Mullin and his staff have gotten more out of their patchwork roster than arguably anyone could have hoped at this point in the season, and after a 32-point exhibition loss to Division II St. Thomas Aquinas that left everyone in New York scratching their heads and anticipating a long winter, they have acquitted themselves quite well with Big East play looming on the horizon.

Chris Mullin remains a rookie on the bench, but what he lacks in experience, his staff has mounds of. Barry Rohrssen, best known for his five-year bridge between Bobby Gonzalez and Steve Masiello at Manhattan, is Mullin's associate head coach, and has enough of an X-and-O pedigree to utilize his talent to the best of his ability. Assistant coach Matt Abdelmassih, who sat in the same stadium and arena management class at St. John's as I did a decade ago, has a reputation for being a recruiter above all, but his in-game ability should be heralded more often after spending the past few years on the staff of Fred Hoiberg at Iowa State before "The Mayor" moved on to the Chicago Bulls. Third assistant Greg St. Jean brings NBA championship cache from the Golden State Warriors, where Mullin made his professional hay alongside the other member of his coaching staff, Mitch Richmond, who serves as the special assistant to the head coach.

A work in progress, as is everyone else in the non-league portion of the schedule, St. John's has already proven its mettle against fellow high-major teams, but by the same token, have come up flat against low and mid-majors at various points in the year. Mullin and his staff have not shied away from the fact that they are willing to sacrifice the win-loss record this year for the greater good, being content to live with the results as they see their process of rebuilding a winner through. Within the next two years, this team will start to make noise on a national level again, but in the meantime, they will face a stiff test as they gain battle experience. The heart of the Red Storm will go a long way, though, and it would not surprise me to see this game stay close inside the final five minutes.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Stony Brook Outworks Hofstra, Holds on to Win 71-68

Last season, Hofstra and Stony Brook renewed their rivalry after a few years of not playing each other.   The Pride won last year's "Battle of Long Island" on a last second shot by Dion Nesmith 66-65 at Mack Arena.   It stood to reason that this year's "Battle of Long Island" game would come down to the final seconds and sure enough it did.

This year's game was at Stony Brook's recently renovated Island Federal Credit Union Arena, which seats 4,000.   It was my first time in the recently renovated arena.  The last time I was at Stony Brook's arena was for Stony Brook's NIT appearance against Illinois back in March, 2010 (http://midmajorhoopsbb.blogspot.com/2010/03/stony-brook-shows-hows-its-done.html).  The arena was then renovated and the Seawolves played their games at cozy Pritchard Gym until last season.
It's a very nice arena and it reminds me a lot of Davidson's Belk Arena, which seats a little more at 5100.

Yes, I'm back in NY for a couple of weeks for the holiday season visiting family and friends.  And of course, to catch some local area New York basketball.  This was the first of at least four games I plan to attend, all Hofstra games.  My friends Tieff and Mal joined me for yesterday festivities.  It was good to have the whole gang back together again as we got to our seats right before the game started.  Thanks to Tieff buying a mini plan, we had good seats in Row K Section 109.

The game started off very physical with Rokas Gustys battling Stony Brook's best player, senior Jameel Warney.  Considering all the work putting into the Freedom of Movement Rules by the NCAA, it was surprising to see all the physicality early on that was allowed by the referees.  After the Seawolves took a 6-5 lead on a Jameel Warney layup, one of his few first half baskets, the Pride responded with an 8-0 run capped by back to back threes by Brian Bernardi and took a 13-6 lead.  However, during this time, Hofstra star guard Juan'ya Green picked up two quick fouls. Stony Brook had their own foul trouble though with their star guard, senior Carson Puriefoy, who picked up two quick fouls of his own.

The Seawolves rallied, going on a 14-3 spurt over six minutes.  Two Ahmed Walker free throws ended the run and put Stony Brook back up 20-16. The Pride would eventually tie the game at twenty two all when Bernardi hit one of two free throws.   Later, Ameen Tanksley would hit two free throws to put Hofstra up two and Marcus Koon would bury a three pointer at the buzzer to give Hofstra a four point lead at the half, 31-27.

For the first twenty minutes, Hofstra had done a very good job holding Warney in check, often double teaming him when he got the ball.  Thanks to Gustys and some guard help, often by Bernardi, Warney had only six first half points.  The Pride were fortunate though to be leading because Stony Brook had several open back door lob plays on Hofstra's zone defense that were open, but the Seawolves made several bad passes, one that actually hit the rim, and could not capitalize on the opportunities.  Still it seemed Coach Joe Mihalich's defensive "boot camp" at practice the past week was paying dividends.

Apparently coach Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell made an adjustment at half time and at the start the second half, the Seawolves immediately worked the ball inside to Warney who then found Rayshawn McGrew for an open jumper to cut the deficit to two, 31-29.  McGrew followed that with a layup and the game was tied at 31.   The Pride would respond with baskets by Bernardi and Tanksley to go up four, 35-31.  Hofstra would maintain the four point lead 41-37 with fifteen minutes left in the game.

But it was around this time that the concerted effort to get the ball to Warney was starting to work. In about a three minute span, Warney scored three baskets, his last basket cut the deficit to three 44-41.   It was the start of an 11-2 run that gave Stony Brook a 50-46 lead that they would never relinquish.  They did this with excellent ball movement in the three and a half minute span where there was four assists and three consecutive three pointers.   The Seawolves successfully burned the Pride Zone, which often looked like a "squirrels on a highway" defense, with the Hofstra players scurrying to cover a man, only to leave a three point shooter open to bury the shot.

During the same time, Hofstra's offense struggled. They committed six turnovers in a five minute span. Green committed two of the turnovers and when he was successfully making passes, his teammates could not corral them.  In fact, it seemed every loose ball was grabbed by Stony Brook.  The Seawolves wanted the ball more and got it.

The Seawolves extended their lead to six, 63-57 with about 3:45 left in the game on another basket by McGrew.  The Pride would not give up however as Brian Bernardi became a one man wrecking crew, scoring the next seven Hofstra points.  His layup cut the deficit to 65-64 with 1:44 left.   But Walker, who was Robin to Warney's Batman in the second half, hit a huge layup and one to put Stony Brook up by four, 68-64 with 1:23 left.  

Twice Hofstra would cut the deficit to two, the latest being 70-68 on two Tanksley free throws.   Brian Sekunda had a chance to possibly put the game away with two free throw attempts with fifteen seconds left.  But Sekunda only hit one of two and Hofstra had a chance to tie.  But both Koon and Green missed three point attempts and Puriefoy grabbed the rebound of the Green miss and ran out the clock for the 71-68 Stony Brook win.

Warney was unstoppable in the second half, scoring 16 of his 22 points in the last twenty minutes of the game. He was also a force inside blocking shots, altering others and forced Hofstra often to kick the ball out instead of attacking the basket.  Warney had five blocks and added nine rebounds.  He was the only double digit scorer for the Seawolves, but Stony Brook had two players with nine points; Sekunda and Lucas Newhouse, who hit three 3 pointers ), two with eight points; McGrew and Walker, who also had eight assists, and Puriefoy added seven points.   The Seawolves were nine of nineteen from beyond the arc.  They are only shooting thirty five percent from three this season.

For Stony Brook, the balanced scoring and the bench points are a further indication of how deep Pikiell's team has been on the season.  The Seawolves average seventy eight points and ten players average eleven minutes or more per game.   That gives Stony Brook lots of options during a game and the depth will come in handy once America East conference play starts.  Whether Stony Brook can finally break through the wall and win the America East Tournament Championship is another matter.

Bernardi and Tanksley both had very solid nights for the Pride.  Tanksley led all scorers with twenty three points while Bernardi added twenty two points. They combined to shoot twelve of twenty four from the field including eight of thirteen from beyond the arc.  The problem was the rest of Hofstra shot eight of thirty one, including Green who was a dismal one of eight on the day.

Green has struggled in his last two games, shooting a combined five of twenty and only five assists combined in those two games.   Green is what makes the Pride go, especially on the passing end.  When Green has five or more assists, the Pride are 6-1.  When he has less than five, the Pride are 0-3.

After playing a solid first twenty minutes, the Pride defense regressed in the second half, giving up forty four points.  I guess it's back to boot camp for Hofstra. 

There were two other telling statistics.  The Pride were out scored in the paint 24-16 and their bench was out scored 19-3.  Nineteen to three.  

The last stat is very telling because the Pride only go eight deep most games.  In fact, the Pride only played two reserves against Stony Brook; Malik Nichols and Desure Buie. Nichols had the only points on a wide open three pointer.

So no Justin Wright Foreman, no Andre Walker and Jamall Robinson hasn't played all season, despite no reports of him being hurt (redshirt?).   No idea if Ibrahim Djambo, the senior transfer from Clemson, will be available in the spring semester.   

The Pride simply can't win playing only seven players.  The six foot ten Walker in his freshman season showed an ability to block shots.  Couldn't he have played just a few minutes against Warney to give him a different look?  

If Robinson is being redshirted, it's a mistake.  This is the Pride's best chance to win the CAA in several years and another small forward who can play solid minutes would be of help to Hofstra, especially from a defensive standpoint.  

The Pride need Green to be an assist machine and get back on track.  Hofstra could sorely use minutes from Walker, Wright Foreman and yes, Robinson come CAA conference play time.  They also need to have a consistent inside scoring presence as Gustys only had seven field goal attempts and only eight points yesterday.   When Gustys scores in double figures, the Pride are 5-0.  When not, 1-4.

Finally, the Pride need to scrap their zone, or badly fix it and show more effort on man to man defense. When the Pride score eighty or more points, they're 6-1.  When they score less than eighty points they're 0-3.  It's asking a lot to have their offense carry them every night and it can't, especially if Green has an off night or they're not willing to kick it inside to Gustys on a consistent basis to give them balance.

The time is now for the Pride to improve.  Otherwise, as I noted earlier in my preseason Hofstra preview, this could be 2006-07 again.  A wasted opportunity to win the CAA.   Time to step up Hofstra.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Despite Offensive Struggles, Gamecocks Pull Away From Pirates

In the ten years that I have been covering college basketball, I find that final scores, whether in men's or women's college basketball, are often deceiving.  Such is the case with last night's 86-48 win by South Carolina over Hampton in women's college basketball action at Colonial Life Arena.

Coming off a very impressive 86-37 win over Winthrop on Sunday, which included the Gamecocks leading at the half 47-13 over an Eagles team with a similar record at 2-7, you would think they would not have much trouble with a 1-7 Pirates team that lost five of its seven games by twenty one points or more.

But that's why the game is played and not left to statistical programs.

After an awards ceremony for Coach Dawn Staley, A'ja Wilson, who was sitting again due to nagging injuries, Alaina Coates and Tiffany Mitchell for their play for USA National Teams in the offseason. the Gamecocks started the game out scoring six of their first eight points on free throws, including four by Mitchell, and took an 8-0 lead.   It took the Pirates about four minutes and ten seconds into the first quarter before Malia Tate-DeFreitas hit a basket to make the score 8-2.   South Carolina would answer back scoring six of the next eight points to take a 14-4 lead with about three and a half minutes left in the quarter.  It looked like Hampton would suffer a similar fate to Winthrop, who was outscored 26-7 in the first quarter on Sunday.

Then a funny thing happened.   Hampton showed why they made the second round of the Women's NIT last season, using quickness to create extra possessions for them.  The Pirates would force three Gamecocks turnovers and score the next five points to cut the deficit to 14-9, holding South Carolina scoreless the rest of the quarter.

The Gamecocks seemed frustrated on offense.  Seemingly easy layups just went off the rim,  In one first half possession, the Gamecocks fired two consecutive jumpers off the backboard never hitting a rim.  Even a three point attempt from the corner hit the side of the backboard.  Staley was none too pleased with her offense in the first half of the game.

The second quarter saw the Gamecocks starting to pull away as they went on a 14-2 run over the first six and a half minutes to take a 28-11 lead.  Much of that scoring was due to Coates, who worked hard to free herself from the Pirates defense to score six of those points.   Now it looked like the Gamecocks had finally shaken off the offensive cobwebs.

But once again, South Carolina went into a drought as the Pirates continued to play hard on the defensive end.  Hampton would hold South Carolina to two points in the last three and a half minutes of the second quarter, while scoring seven points of their own in that span.  The Gamecocks only led 30-18 after shooting just 30 percent in the first half.

After a halftime show that featured Cocky doing the Chicken Dance, the Gamecocks started on offense much like the men's basketball team did at the start of the second half vs. Drexel on Tuesday night.  South Carolina hit their first four field goal attempts, including two three pointers and a layup by Mitchell and one by Khadijah Sessions.  Interspersed with those field goals were four three throws, including a free throw on a three point play on the layup by Mitchell.  The Gamecocks extended their lead to nineteen, 45-26.

After a three point play by Tate-DeFreitas cut the lead back to sixteen, 45-29, the Gamecocks would extend the lead over the five final minutes of the quarter to take a 59-38 lead after three quarters.  The Gamecocks nearly scored as many points in the third quarter, twenty nine, than they did in the first twenty minutes of the first half.  They did this despite committing seven turnovers in the quarter.  They also extended their lead despite Hampton scoring more points in the third quarter, twenty, than they did in the first half.   What helped was that South Carolina shot seven of eight from the field in the third quarter.

The Gamecocks continued their hot shooting in the fourth quarter, scoring twenty seven more points while holding the Pirates to ten.   The Gamecocks shot seventy two percent in the second half in rout to the final score of 86-48, which looked a lot easier that it actually was for South Carolina.  Hampton, in playing a tough schedule that included #8 Texas, undefeated Oregon, defending CAA champion James Madison and Iowa State, held their own for a good thirty minutes.

Coming off her triple double against Winthrop, Coates had to settle for a double double with twenty two points and twelve rebounds.  Sarah Imovbioh added nineteen points and seven rebounds, while Mitchell chipped in with seventeen points and six rebounds.  South Carolina nearly had as many offensive rebounds, eighteen, as Hampton had total rebounds, nineteen.  The Gamecocks outrebounded the Pirates 52-19.  Tate-DeFreitas led the Pirates with fourteen while Ryan Jordan had nine points.

South Carolina takes their 10-0 record on the road to East Carolina for a game in Myrtle Beach on Sunday, before one last home non conference game against Elon next week before SEC conference play starts in the new year.   They certainly should have Wilson back by conference play.

By resting Wilson,  Staley has been able to reach into her bench and ten of her players played eight minutes or more last night.  That will give them experience heading into SEC games where four of the other teams are ranked; #8 Kentucky, #9 Mississippi State, #14 Tennessee and #18 Texas A&M.  Plus you have 10-0 Missouri, 9-1 Georgia, 9-1 Florida and 8-2 Vanderbilt waiting for the Gamecocks as well.

Hope Wilson has got a lot of rest.  She's going to need it come January.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Gamecocks Continue to Build on Their Season With a Win Over Drexel

If you live around or work in downtown Columbia, South Carolina, you know there is a lot of construction going on in the city.   Lots of new student housing is being built, along with a new law school.  Finally around the Colonial Life Arena, there is the Innovista Greene Street Corridor project, which looks to turn Greene Street into a more friendly area for pedestrians and bicyclists.

So it stands to reason that inside Colonial Life Arena, there's a lot of building going on as well, as in Frank Martin building a successful men's basketball program.  In Martin's first three seasons, the Gamecocks have slowly improved.  In 2012-13, they were 14-18 and 4-14 in the SEC. In 2013-14, the Gamecocks went 14-20 and 5-13 in the SEC, but they also knocked off Auburn and Arkansas to make the SEC Tournament quarterfinals.  Last season, South Carolina finished over .500 for the first time since the 2008-09 season.  The Gamecocks went 17-16 and 6-12 in the SEC.  They won two games again in the SEC Tournament before losing to Georgia in the SEC quarterfinals.

This season, Martin's Gamecocks are off to their best record since the 1970-71 team that made the NCAA Sweet Sixteen (back when it was incredibly difficult to make the NCAA Tournament).  That 1970 Gamecocks team was coached by the legendary Frank McGuire and had terrific players like John Roche, Tom Owens, Kevin Joyce and Tom Riker.

There are several reasons for the Gamecocks' terrific start.  One, balanced scoring.  They have five players averaging in double figures scoring; Mindaugas Kacinas 13.3 ppg, Laimonas Chatkevicius 13.0 ppg, Michael Carrera 12.2 ppg, Sindarius Thornwell 11.7 ppg and Duane Notice 11.6 ppg.  Second, they have depth.  The Gamecocks have added two terrific freshman in PJ Dozier and Chris Silva.   Throw in sophomore Marcus Stroman and you have eight players that average fifteen or more minutes per game.  Third, they have increased their average points per game by nineteen points from the previous season.  Entering the game against Drexel Tuesday night, South Carolina was averaging 84 points per game.

I had seen two of the Gamecocks' games on CBS Sports Network in the Paradise Jam; the 94-84 semifinal win over Hofstra and the 83-75 win over Tulsa.  In the ten point win over the Pride, despite Hofstra hitting a school record seventeen 3 pointers and shooting fifty percent from the field, South Carolina shot 54 percent from the field and had eighteen offensive rebounds, which led to eleven more field goal attempts than Hofstra.  The Gamecocks had shown much better ball movement in both their Paradise Jam games than I had seen any Martin coached team since he came to Columbia in 2012.

Drexel on the other hand had struggled entering the game on Tuesday night vs. South Carolina, having lost six of their first seven games.  In fact the Dragons only won their first game of the season in their previous game, a 66-53 win over LaSalle.  Outside of a nineteen point loss to UNC Asheville in the Great Alaska Shootout, Drexel had been within single digits in all of their other losses.

Under Bruiser Flint, the Dragons have been long known for a defensive style of game.  They try to slow the pace, work the clock on offense, play physical, rebound the ball and keep opponents within the sixty point range. To Colonial Athletic Conference fans, aka #CAAHoops fans, everywhere, they are known for rock fight basketball, often ugly to watch low scoring games.   In fact, the Dragons have not averaged seventy or more points per game since the 2004-05 season when Phil Goss, Sean Brooks and Dominick Mejia were leading Drexel.  Scott Bier has an excellent take on Dragons Speak what Drexel needs to do to adapt to the new NCAA rules.

The problem is with the new freedom of movement rules in the NCAA, unlike the Gamecocks, the Dragons seem to be set in their ways.  After last night's game. they average sixty eight points per game and are only shooting forty percent from the field and thirty two percent from beyond the arc.  And they are fouling like mad.  Their FTA/FGA defense is 350th in the nation at 59.6.

After I purchased a ticket at the ticket office in the lower level of Colonial Life Arena, I met up briefly with my good friend Mike Brodsky who flew down to see the game.   We caught up a bit and then I headed to my seat up in Section 104.   Not quite as good as my women's basketball season tickets, but a perfectly fine view for the game.   I also got to catch up with fellow former Mid Majority 800 Games Project writer and friend Ian McCormick, whose excellent photography work will come into play later in this article.

Unlike the crowd of 13,000 plus at Sunday's women's game, there was about 8500 fans in the seats on Tuesday night.   Mind you, USC is on winter break so seemingly the only students there was the band, the cheerleaders and the dance team.  Plus the men's team is not anywhere the #2 ranked women have been for the past several years so the fan base is slowly warming up to this team.

The game started out in classic Drexel CAA rockfight fashion.  It took only nine seconds for the Dragons to pick up their first foul and then another nine seconds later, they had their second foul, a foul of a three point attempt by Dozier.  Dozier then hit two out of three free throws, a harbinger of things to come, to start the scoring for the game.  South Carolina went out to an early 6-2 lead before Drexel scored the next seven points, including a Rashann London three pointer to go up 9-6. The Gamecocks responded to take back the lead 10-9 on, what else, two Thornwell free throws.

The game was briefly stopped after Rodney Williams was injured on a play by the announcers table.  Two Drexel teammates had to help a limping Williams off the court.   He would appear on the bench in the second half but not play again.

After Sammy Mojica buried one of his three 3-pointers on the night to put Drexel back up 12-10, the teams did not score a basket for the next two plus minutes  Mojica would hit a jumper to put Drexel up 14-10 with 11:38 left in the half.  Drexel would be up by many as six, 21-15 with 8:23 left in the half.

Up till then, the Gamecocks looked sluggish on offense, None of the crisp ball movement I had seen at the Paradise Jam on TV.  South Carolina had six turnovers in the first ten minutes of the game and only had nine field goal attempts.  They went to the free throw line thirteen times and only made seven of them.   The pace heavily favored Drexel and the fans in my section were none too pleased, especially with the officials.

Suddenly, the Gamecocks awoke, scoring eight straight points, capped by the six foot eleven Chatkevicius burying a three pointer to put South Carolina up 26-21, forcing an unhappy Bruiser Flint to call timeout with a little over five minutes left in the half.  Drexel would eventually get the deficit within one, 28-27, before South Carolina took a 32-28 lead at the half.

I happened to turnaround and sitting behind me was John Humphries and his son Stan.  John is one of my fellow board members at Trenholm Little League and as I was talking to John, I noticed Steve Stanton, former Trenholm Little League President and current Trenholm Little League
umpire.  So we all caught up on Little League and Women's basketball at halftime.  Pretty cool.

Whatever Frank Martin said to his team at halftime worked, because the Gamecocks sped up the pace immediately at the start of the second half.  Kacinas and Thornwell each nailed three pointers, both assisted by Dozier.  Then off a bad turnover by Terrell Allen, where he tried a behind the back pass in the lane with traffic, Dozier hit a layup and one.  Dozier hit the free throw for the old fashioned three point play and just like that, South Carolina was up thirteen, 41-28 with a little less than nineteen minutes left in the game.  Sadly my iPhone battery died in the middle of my tweet that I was about to send noting the run.

It went bad to worse for Drexel.  The Gamecocks ramped up the D and the Dragons ramped up the bad shot selection, despite South Carolina only scoring one more basket for the next several minutes.  Tavon Allen and Tyshawn Miles each chucked up a bad shot.  Mohamed Bah had chance to hit a couple of free throws at the line and badly missed.  Mojica missed an open look at a three.  The Dragons didn't score a basket for five minutes and twenty second until six foot seven Kazembe Abif, who reminds me of a lefthanded Greg Washington, buried a nice three pointer to make the score 43-31.

Unfortunately for Drexel, that's as close as they got the rest of the way.  South Carolina scored the next seven points to extend the lead to nineteen 50-31.  The Gamecocks showed much better ball movement with twelve assists in the second half after having only two in the first half.

There were two highlights in the second half, one on the offensive end for the Gamecocks and one for Drexel, which featured Bruiser Flint.   With about five minutes left in the game, Notice shot a three point jumper.  No one on the Dragons blocked the lane as Notice's shot bounced off the rim and the freshman Silva quickly ran the lane, leaped and in one motion one handed the rebound and slammed it back down for an emphatic dunk!  

Picture by Ian McCormick (@HPUfan on Twitter)
As for Bruiser, well midway through the second half, Bruiser got a little too far out of the coaches box arguing a call with a referee.  The referee stopped play and gave Bruiser a warning for being out of the coaches box.  Mike Brodsky appropriately tweeted the play, while Ian McCormick took this outstanding picture.

What was left was both teams emptying the benches as Ian McCormick, who joined me in the second half, noted for different reasons; South Carolina was emptying the bench to get some of their players minutes while Drexel was emptying their bench because they had so many players foul out, plus Rodney Williams was out for the rest of the game due to his first half injury. Austin Williams, Terrell Allen and Myles all fouled out.  Andrew Cartright, a six foot six freshman from Maine, who hadn't played all season, had to come in and played three minutes.  South Carolina would score forty seven second half points to win the game 79-54.

Once again, South Carolina had balanced scoring with five players with at least nine points.  Dozier led the Gamecocks with sixteen, Thornwell had thirteen, Carrera added ten points and Chatkevicius and Silva each had nine points.   With Drexel fouling so much, the Gamecocks had THIRTY NINE free throw attempts.  South Carolina needs to take advantage with that many free throw attempts, as they only hit on twenty two in the game.

Tavon Allen led all scorers with eighteen points for Drexel, but he was only six of eighteen from the field and his shot selection left a lot to be desired.  Mojica added thirteen and was three of six from beyond the arc.  Abif had nine points and honestly should have got the ball more.

South Carolina now has eight double digit margin of victory wins. Their only win not by double digits was the eight point championship victory over Tulsa in the Paradise Jam.  They haven't had the strongest of non conference schedules.  But that will pick up in the next few weeks as they play at Clemson, then vs. St John's and a home game vs. Memphis before SEC conference play starts.

As previously noted for Drexel, they seem to be still stuck in pre 2015-16 season mode of play.  Mike Brodsky heard the referees on several Drexel fouls noting "...hands on the waist", which the NCAA is really trying to cut down on with their freedom of movement rules.   The classic rock fight strategy of Drexel's past no longer holds up today.

The Dragons have not had a twenty game winning season since the the 2011-12 team nearly made the NCAA tournament with a 29-7 record (lost in NIT Quarterfinals to UMass).  In fact, two of the last three seasons, Drexel has had a losing record.  Bruiser may not need to change his style of dress, because he is a dapper dresser.  But if Bruiser doesn't adapt to the new style of play, he may have to take his wardrobe somewhere else after this season.

As for Frank Martin, a very sharp dresser in his own right, he's got his team moving in the right direction.  The ball movement is light years better than the last three seasons, the team has balanced scoring and depth.   A few more good wins, especially in conference and the Gamecocks Men's Basketball team will start drawing as well as the women's team.

That's something to build on.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Coates Triple Double Leads Gamecocks in Downing Winthrop

Entering Sunday's play against Winthrop, undefeated South Carolina had faced a pretty tough schedule in their first month and a half into the 2015-16 season.   The Gamecocks have played four games against nationally ranked opponents; a opening day 88-80 win over #10 Ohio State, a 68-65 win at #20 UCLA, a 60-58 win over #24 Arizona State in Hawaii and a 66-54 win over #13 Duke.

So it stood to reason that 8-0 South Carolina would sooner or later have a home non conference women's basketball game against a less formidable foe.   Thus the likely guaranteed game vs. Big South opponent Winthrop yesterday at the Colonial Life Arena.   But no matter who the opponent is on the court, the fans in Columbia love to turn out in droves for their #2 nationally ranked Gamecocks.  13,409 of them to be exact.  

Fans were a little concerned when they saw A'ja Wilson in warmup clothes quietly walking the court, shaking hands with referees before the game, as her teammates practiced on their side of the hardwood.  Wilson is day to day with "nagging injuries" and her status for Wednesday's home game against another non conference opponent in Hampton.

But the fans did not need to worry because the rest of the Gamecocks came to play.  And Alaina Coates gave everyone in the crowd a reason to go home happy after the game.

It was nice to be back in Colonial Life Arena.   It was my first live game of the college basketball season and it was good to have my older son Matthew with me as well.  As we got to our season ticket seats in section 115, I immediately got a text from my friend Toisha.  Her son Bryson, who is a good friend of Matthew's, along with being his baseball teammate, had spotted us going down to our seats from their section, three sections over.  I knew what would we be doing at halftime. 

From the tipoff it was clearly apparent that Winthrop had no answer for the Gamecocks size.  Even without the six foot four Wilson, the other six footers in South Carolina's lineup; the junior Coates, graduate transfer senior Sarah Imovbioh, senior Asia Dozier and sophomore Jatarie White were dominant all game long.  The Gamecocks had sixteen blocks on the game and outrebounded the Eagles 48-32.  

One of the things I have to get used to now in women's college basketball is that the game is broken up into quarters.   At least for yesterday's game, it made the game seem quicker.   It could have also been the fact that the Gamecocks came out strong in the first quarter, taking a 26-7 lead after the first ten minutes.   

And it wasn't like Dawn Staley kept the starters in for the entire first quarter.  After a few minutes, Staley did a hockey line change, taking out four of her starters.   It didn't matter who was on the court for South Carolina.  They were relentless and fun, especially watching sophomore guard Bianca Cuevas.  The Bronx, New York native is a five foot six dynamo who often flies the court with seemingly reckless abandon.  

One particular highlight in the game was Cuevas driving strong to the basket and then took an offense balance layup where the ball arched high off the backboard and into the basket.  Staley had a sheepish grin on her face knowing it might not have been the most fundamentally sound basketball move, but you have to let Cuevas be Cuevas.

There was no let up by South Carolina in the second quarter, as they outscored Winthrop 21-6.  Along with Cuevas' circus shot layup, the other highlight of the first half was Coates blocking back to back Eagles' shots.  Then after the second block, Coates grabbed the ball and fired an outlet pass.  This lead to a Gamecocks' fast break basket and had the fans roaring in approval.  South Carolina was up 47-13 at the half.

At halftime, Matthew and I made our way to our friends over at section 118.  There was a group of seats open in front of the row Toisha and Bryson were sitting at.  Bryson quickly joined Matt in the row and a few minutes later were going around the arena, including hanging out with Cocky, the Gamecocks' mascot.  The two partners in crime were having fun and that's all that matters.

Three words described the second half of play - "Rinse, Lather, Repeat".  The Gamecocks came out of the locker room after halftime and continued to roll.  What I love about Staley's game plan, and she's not shy about it, is that the Gamecocks work the ball inside to Coates and then it's either a shot at the basket or when the defense converges, she kicks it out to open players on the wing.  The Gamecocks shot 9 of 24 from outside the arc, a respectable 37.5 percent.  It's simple fundamental basketball that works. 

Coates would shoot a ridiculous 13 of 15 from the field and hit three of her five free throws from the line.   She already had a double double easily into the third quarter as she had six offensive rebounds on the game.  

The Gamecocks were up 80-32 with about five minutes left in the game.  The Gamecocks had all their reserves in with the exception of one person;  Coates.  And there was a reason for that.  Coates had a chance to get a triple double in the game with one more block.  She got that with just a few seconds left in the game for her first career triple double; 29 points,16 rebounds and 10 blocks.  

For my first live game of my tenth year of covering men's and women's college basketball, I got to see one of the best overall performances in those ten years.  Coates was clearly the best player on the court on Sunday, leading her team to a 86-37 drubbing of Winthrop.

Coates is on a serious roll, having hit 20 of her last 24 shots (she was 7 of 9 vs. Duke).  She is shooting sixty seven percent from the field on the season. And Coates is only the third leading scorer for South Carolina on the season (Wilson averages 18 points per game, Tiffany Mitchell averages 13 points per game).

Something tells me Wilson will get another day of rest on Wednesday in the Gamecocks next home game vs. Hampton.  As South Carolina fans now know, Coates has got her covered.