Sunday, December 20, 2009

First SJU win was just the start for HU

It took Jay Wright six years to end one epic drought at Hofstra. But even after the Flying Dutchmen reached the NCAA Tournament in 2000 for the first time since 1977, the other dry spell that defined the program seemed as deep as ever.

Local rival St. John’s continued to dominate Hofstra by cruising to double-digit victories in 1996, 1998 and 1999. Those wins extended the Red Storm’s lead in the all-time series to 19-0 and their average margin of victory to nearly 18 points per game.

Hofstra lost by less than 10 points just four times, and the nearest of the near-misses—a 58-56 loss in 1992 in which St. John’s won at the buzzer—ranked, with little sense of irony, as one of the finest moments in Flying Dutchmen history.

Relief for Hofstra finally arrived on Dec. 16, 2000. And all the Dutchmen had to do to end 60 years of misery against St. John’s was walk 100 yards across the street.

The Dutchmen, playing as the road team at Nassau Coliseum so that St. John’s could have a “home game” that allowed it to serve as the host school when the Coliseum hosted the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament the following March, mounted a second half comeback to knock off the Red Storm, 86-80, in front of 8,771.

Norman Richardson scored 22 points to lead five players in double figures for the senior-laden Dutchmen, whose experience proved to be the difference against a young St. John’s squad that featured precocious freshman guard Omar Cook but just one senior in Reggie Jessie.

“I felt good about the game because I knew we had a very mature team,” said Tom Pecora, who was in his final season as Wright’s assistant. “Jason Hernandez was a transfer, so he was in his fifth year. Norman Richardson had gone to prep school, so he was in his fifth year. Greg Springfield was a transfer from Western Kentucky, he was in his fifth year. And Roberto [Gittens was a senior].

“I felt good about it. It fell right into that formula of experienced mid-major versus young BCS conference team.”

The formula seemed awfully familiar in the first half, when St. John’s maintained a small but steady lead on the Dutchmen and entered the locker room up 42-36. But the seniors, who were confident of their chances against St. John’s after losing by 12 a year earlier and determined to end the program’s losing streak against the Red Storm, gathered at halftime for a pep talk.

“We always had to play them on the road—we had to play them at Carnesecca and [in] real, real tough environments,” Hernandez said. “Coming in we [felt] we could do some good things, especially them coming through us at kind of a home game at Nassau Coliseum. We were a senior-laden team who had been to the tournament the year before and we just felt like it was a good time for us to get one.

“At halftime, the seniors and the captains really got after it and said ‘We’ve got to take this game.’ We didn’t want to leave Nassau Coliseum without that victory.”

The seniors did plenty to back up their words in the second half. The Dutchmen went on a 25-9 run to turn an eight-point deficit into an eight-point lead about midway through the half before St. John’s crawled back to tie the game 68-68 with seven minutes left.

But a pair of free throws by Gittens gave the Dutchmen the lead for good and the Dutchmen responded with multiple big stops on defense and clutch shots on offense down the stretch. Hernandez scored all 13 of his points after intermission and hit a pivotal jumper with 1:32 left that extended the Dutchmen’s lead to six, while Richardson scored 14 points in the second half, including a pair of 3-pointers that gave him the program record (159).

“We just had to keep grinding it out and play our type of defense in the last six minutes of the game,” Hernandez said. “We prided ourselves, really, on wearing teams down and just grinding out wins. I think we did a good job of taking good shots at the end of the game—and what we did best that year was really defend.”

The victory turned out to be a season- and decade-defining one for both programs. The Dutchmen were struggling to establish some chemistry following the graduation of Speedy Claxton and had already suffered narrow losses to rivals Delaware and Iona.

But the win over St. John’s lit the fuse on a sensational run by the Dutchmen, who won 21 of their next 23 games. They ended the regular season on a 15-game winning streak and won three more America East tournament games to win the conference crown and the automatic NCAA berth for the second straight season.

Hofstra has not been back to the NCAA Tournament since (insert snarky comment about Tom O’Connor here), but the Dutchmen have nonetheless become the premier program in the metro area. St. John’s is just emerging from the wreckage of created by Mike Jarvis, who had a non-existent relationship with local AAU and high school coaches and who presided over a program that had to forfeit 47 wins due to NCAA violations earlier this decade.

Pecora, meanwhile, has regularly brought Big East-caliber players to Hofstra, which has won 20 games four times in the last five years and has beaten St. John’s five times in seven meetings this decade, including four straight heading into today’s game in the Holiday Festival.

“It’s great to set the tone and kind of pave the way and let guys know that Hofstra is a very viable basketball program and one that is always going to be tough to contend with, regardless of the year,” Hernandez said. “It’s great to see the guys now going to those games [and feeling] that they can win, where early on in the Hofstra years, we kind of went into [the St. John’s] game [thinking] ‘Man, hopefully we can keep it close.’ Now it’s a different mindset, where guys are coming out to win the game. To see that shift in attitude is really what’s the best thing about it.”

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