Monday, February 9, 2009

Hofstra 71, Towson 68 (Or: Everyday’s a mental health day)

Stewie Griffin was a perfectly normal, happy, non-murderous baby boy...until his oafish father plopped him in front of a CAA telecast one Saturday afternoon.

Tom Pecora appeared on MSG’s College Basketball Show (if the sponsor wants me to mention its name, it can send me a check) less than half an hour before the Flying Dutchmen tipped off against Towson Saturday and said he wanted to trademark the term “bipolar basketball” (a phrase he repeated during the coaches’ conference call this morning) to describe the Dutchmen.

Yet even Pecora had to have been surprised by how prescient the Dutchmen made him look in a 71-68 win over Towson that lacked for style points but not for entertainment or drama.

The Dutchmen skirted the line between damnation and salvation, sometimes on consecutive possessions. They committed six turnovers in the first 10:13 and only seven the rest of the way. They opened the game by making three of their first 18 shots but made 19 of 35 the rest of the way. They trailed by 12 three times in the first half and held only one lead (at 2-0) in the first 29 minutes yet improved to 10-2 in games decided by five points or fewer.

Through it all, Pecora had a tour de force game in coaxing out of the Dutchmen perhaps the program’s most unique victory in his eight seasons. The Dutchmen won even though nobody played 30 minutes, only the fourth time that’s happened since the 2002-03 season and the first time it’s happened in a competitive game (the Dutchmen beat Dartmouth 74-59 on Dec. 17, 2005, lost to Drexel 70-52 on Feb. 5, 2005 and lost to Maryland 87-72 on Nov. 29, 2003).

Core players did little and formerly fringe players had impressive games. Cornelius Vines and Tony Dennison, who entered the game as the Dutchmen’s second- and third-leading scorers, scored a grand total of one point. Dane Johnson played two uninspiring minutes early in the first half—during which he blocked a shot, missed two free throws and squandered an easy lay-up opportunity by fumbling a pass from Greg Washington—and didn’t see the floor again.

The Dutchmen completed the comeback in the second half even though Greg Johnson picked up five fouls in 10 minutes and even though Charles Jenkins—the team captain and the symbol of the emotional highs and lows endured by the Dutchmen—sat for more than nine minutes due to foul trouble, took just two shots in the final 20 minutes and hit his only field goal of the second half with 16:29 left.

But he still scored a team-high 24 points and kept the Dutchmen in the game in the first half, when he shot 6-of-11 while the rest of his teammates shot 2-of-16. And each time Towson took a 12-point lead, Jenkins answered with points on the subsequent Dutchmen possession.

Of the six other players who played at least 22 minutes, four (Washington, Zygis Sestakos, Darren Townes and Greg Johnson) have recorded DNP-CDs this season and two more (Arminas Urbutis and Nathaniel Lester) have played five or fewer minutes in a game a combined eight times. Urbutis recorded his first career double-double while Washington, whose turnover led to a game-tying 3-pointer by Towson with 1:18 left, hit a 15-footer on the next possession for the winning points. Sestakos played 22 minutes (only the third time this season he’s exceeded 20 minutes), hit a huge 3-pointer late in the second half and draped Josh Thornton—who was 4-of-7 from 3-point land—and forced him into shooting an air ball on Towson’s final possession.

Nobody was quite as impressive as Lester, who may be emerging as the reliable second scorer the Dutchmen have so sorely lacked this season. Lester scored 19 of his career-high 21 points in the second half, including 11 with Jenkins on the bench. He scored four straight field goals, every one of which put the Dutchmen ahead, over a span of 3:40, and had five tie-breaking baskets overall. Lester also pulled down a team-high six rebounds in the second half, recorded two assists, blocked a shot and had a steal.

Lester didn’t score in double digits in any of the Dutchmen’s first 19 games but has exceeded 10 points in four of the last five games. He has been the second-leading scorer behind Jenkins in three of those contests.

Pecora was appropriately emotional in mixing and matching the pieces of his unpredictable team. In a must-win game, no one was exempt from his withering stares, raised voice and quick hooks. Even the scorer’s table was not spared. After Greg Johnson picked up his fifth foul on a questionable reach-in foul, Pecora kicked the table and left a giant streaking black mark that made the table look more like a highway divider after a car accident. That public display of affection earned Pecora a technical foul.

The bipolarity (hey, that’s a word, you learn something new every day) of the Dutchmen extends to the perception of their prospects in the CAA. A team that had seemingly little hope of contending for the fourth and final first-round bye after the Mason loss is all alone in seventh place in the conference but could be in a four-way tie for fourth place by this time Thursday if it beats 8-5 Old Dominion Tuesday and if the two other 8-5 teams, Drexel and James Madison, lose Wednesday at first-place Northeastern and at second-place VCU, respectively.

Sounds reasonable, right? Don’t go booking that Friday night yet in Richmond, right? Of course, this is a league in which the two worst teams beat the two best teams five nights ago. So nothing is predictable. Pecora’s on to something with the term bipolar basketball, except it also sums up a conference that is at least as schizophrenic as his team.

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