As seniors in their final season of eligibility, Miklos Szabo and Cornelius Vines will not be a part of the next Flying Dutchmen core. And as a junior who fluctuates between impressive and invisible, there are no guarantees Nathaniel Lester will be a starter by this time next season.
Still, on a team in which there are as many newcomers as returnees, Tom Pecora believes at least two of the three inconsistent veterans must emerge as regular contributors in order for the Flying Dutchmen to reach their potential and contend for the CAA title. What transpired Tuesday wasn’t exactly the blueprint Pecora would have drawn up on the plane ride to Florida, but it was enough to lift the Dutchmen in their non-conference finale.
Lester scored 14 of his 17 points in the second half, drained five straight free throws in three trips to the line following the final media timeout and recorded a pivotal steal with 37 seconds left and Hofstra up one as the Dutchmen held on to edge Florida Atlantic, 67-63, in warm and beautiful Boca Raton (it’s 19 degrees on Long Island as I type this…just saying).
Lester, who keyed the late rally by the Dutchmen in their 61-52 loss to Davidson last Monday, had another quiet first half Tuesday (three points, three rebounds and one steal in 12 minutes) but scored 12 points after Jenkins picked up his fourth foul with 12:35 left. His first three baskets of the second half all came with the Dutchmen nursing a one-point lead.
“I thought Lester stepped up big,” Pecora said by phone afterward. “He’s a junior and he made some big plays for us with a few minutes left.”
Lester’s performance was just one encouraging element of a victory as well-rounded as it was much-needed. The Dutchmen snapped a two-game losing streak despite receiving almost nothing in the second half from Charles Jenkins, who scored all but two of his 17 points in the first half, spent eight minutes on the bench after recording his fourth foul with 12:35 left to play and was on the court for less than three minutes before he fouled out with 2:20 to go.
With Jenkins on the bench, the Dutchmen first went on a 12-0 run to turn a 43-41 deficit into a 53-43 lead and then held off a series of Florida Atlantic rallies. The Owls closed within one point three times, all with Jenkins out of the game, but never tied the game or took the lead.
“I thought it was a great team win,” Pecora said. “Everyone did a little bit, and that’s important when you go on the road. Charles got in foul trouble and we had to find a way to win the basketball game…it’s important to win a game like this so you know you can win it without Charles if the situation arises.”
Greg Washington, the other inconsistent veteran and a non-factor most of this month, continued to struggle from the field (five points on 2-of-9 shooting) but pulled down a career-high 13 rebounds while adding four blocks, one shy of his season high. Washington had just one rebound in 28 minutes against Davidson last Monday.
And Pecora, who spoke of the Dutchmen being a team in transition after the loss to Davidson, continued to increase the role of his freshmen: At one point late in the game, Pecora had Lester and four freshmen—Williams, Halil Kanacevic, Yves Jules and David Imes—on the court.
Williams was far better in the second half (seven points, four assists, one turnover and three steals) than in the first half (five points, two assists, five turnovers and two steals). Imes didn’t play at all in the first half but was on the court for nine minutes in the second half (more playing time than he recorded in all but one of his first six games) and scored the Dutchmen’s final basket, a put-back with 4:14 left. Jules played 18 minutes, the fourth time he has played at least 10 minutes in a game but the first time he’s done it in a close contest (the Dutchmen beat Farmingdale, Elon and New Hampshire by an average of 27 points)
“It’s funny, because you have to coach differently—you have your things you’d like to do, but you know the young group is not ready to do them,” Pecora said. “It makes things challenging for you. I thought they made the shots they needed to make, they defended and rebounded.”
The challenge for Pecora as CAA play finally approaches this weekend is to figure out how to get Lester, Szabo and Vines to contribute regularly. Lester’s effort Tuesday snapped a streak of five straight games in which he scored nine or fewer points.
Szabo continued his Darren Townes impersonation Tuesday by opening the game red-hot and spending most of the second half on the bench. Szabo scored the Dutchmen’s first four points and five of their first seven points but went scoreless the rest of the way as he missed his final seven field goal attempts. He started the second half but sat for the final 16:17.
Vines, meanwhile, scored just one point—the third time in the last seven games he hasn’t scored from the field—and sat for the final 11:51.
“The key to our season [is] these three guys,” Pecora said. “We’re going to get a good amount from the freshmen, but you can’t expect them to help you win games. Mikey Szabo, Nathaniel Lester and Cornelius Vines—two of these three guys, if they’re playing well, we’re not going to lose most nights.”
3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. Florida Atlantic 12/29)
3: Nathaniel Lester
2: Chaz Williams
1: Greg Washington
Charles Jenkins 19
Nathaniel Lester 15
Chaz Williams 14
Halil Kanacevic 10
Greg Washington 8
Cornelius Vines 7
Miklos Szabo 5