Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Hofstra 84, Fairfield 80 (Or: What is fun to watch is torture to coach)

If you spent Monday writing a research paper, you probably had more fun than Tom Pecora.

Tom Pecora sat down at the table in the media room shortly after 9 pm last night and channeled the thoughts of the thousands and thousands of Hofstra students who have ever been surrounded by open textbooks and confronted by a blank computer screen.

“Well,” he said. “Where do I begin?”

Except, of course, trying to figure out where to start with the analysis of the Flying Dutchmen’s 84-80 victory over Fairfield is a whole lot more fun than determining how to start that 15-page paper about linguistics in Egypt.

Check that: Fun for us, sure. This wasn’t a classic on the James Madison level, but it was a gem of a game that had a little bit of everything—one that looked pretty good in the black and white of the box score but whose storylines and subtleties couldn’t be fully appreciated unless it was absorbed in person.

Yet that little bit of everything is precisely why the only fun Pecora derived from Monday was the result. Getting there was about as enjoyable as, well, writing a 15-page paper about linguistics in Egypt.

“I can’t coach like Mike D’Antoni—I can’t just say ‘We’re going to outscore them tonight,’” a scratchy-voiced Pecora said after the Dutchmen reached 84 points in regulation for just the fourth time in their last 69 games dating back to the 2007-08 season opener. “I’m just not built that way. So I went bonkers at halftime and these two guys responded.”

Pecora was flanked by Nathaniel Lester and Charles Jenkins, whose second half efforts allowed the Dutchmen to pen a different ending than last Tuesday, when an imperfect first half led to an 80-72 loss to Charlotte. Jenkins played through foul trouble—he picked up four fouls in the first 14 minutes of the half—to score 26 of his career-high 38 points after intermission. He hit all three of his 3-point attempts, including one from well beyond the top of the key with the shot clock expiring that gave the Dutchmen an 82-77 lead with 1:20 left.

Lester scored 10 of his 18 points in the second half and came up with the final two defensive stops for the Dutchmen by knocking the ball away from Yorel Hawkins and then blocking his shot with four seconds left and the Dutchmen nursing an 83-80 lead.

Lester and Jenkins were particularly valuable in the first 10 minutes of the second half, when they combined to score the Dutchmen’s first 17 points and steady a squad that was falling into foul trouble, getting dominated in the paint and teetering on the edge of getting blown out of the gym.

The Dutchmen picked up six fouls and had three players with at least three fouls by the first media timeout of the second half. In addition, Fairfield, which outrebounded Hofstra 19-14 in the first half, recorded eight of the first 11 rebounds of the second half.

With Miklos Szabo and Greg Washington both ineffective and among the players with three fouls, Pecora had no choice but to go with a smaller lineup. The Stags took their biggest lead of the second half (53-47) on two free throws following the media timeout, but Jenkins and Lester began driving inside on every possession as they keyed a 16-7 run in which the Dutchmen either scored all their points on layups or on free throws generated by shooting fouls.

“These guys have got to step up and play well,” Pecora said, referring to the Dutchmen’s forwards. “We’ll just play small. I’ll play five guards if I have to. I can play Charles at the four and [Lester] at the five.”

The Dutchmen would never trail again after taking a 61-60 lead on Cornelius Vines’ two free throws with 10:46 left, yet there was plenty of suspense the rest of the way in watching the Dutchmen coax a victory out of an atypical evening.

The Dutchmen committed just five fouls in the final 15:25, pivotal considering Fairfield shot much better from the free throw line in the second half (11-of-15) than the first half (8-of-18). Jenkins picked up his fourth foul with 6:02 left, and over the next three minutes, Pecora twice pulled Jenkins on defense and then called timeout to get him back in once the Dutchmen got the ball back.

“You do it when you have to do it,” Pecora said of using the Dutchmen’s timeouts. “We talk as a staff all the time: You can win the game from the eight-minute mark to the four-minute mark and then just hold on the last four minutes and let your guys play in foul trouble instead of the philosophy of just holding them for the last four minutes—especially if you’ve got a little bit of offensive rhythm going and you roll the dice.”

On defense, the Dutchmen cooled off the Stags, who shot 55 percent in the first half, by clamping down on Anthony Johnson (16 points and 10 rebounds in the first half, six points and two boards in the second half) and forcing Fairfield outside, where it was just 3-of-12 from 3-point land in the second half and 5-of-23 overall.

As relieved as he was by the victory, Pecora was also disconcerted by the concept of two consecutive opponents coming into Hofstra Arena and playing Hofstra-style ball at the expense of the Dutchmen, who were outrebounded for the second straight game (38-29). It’s only the seventh time the Dutchmen have been outrebounded in back-to-back games since the start of 2007-08.

“They beat us up on the glass—they had 16 offensive rebounds, those are what we do to other people, we outrebound people, we hold them to 40 percent shooting from the floor,” Pecora said.

Pecora was particularly unhappy to see another power forward dominate the Dutchmen in the first half (Charlotte’s Shamari Spears had 17 points and two rebounds in the first half last Tuesday). But Johnson’s uncontested layup in the final seconds gave the Stags a 42-40 lead at intermission and provided Pecora the excuse he needed to unload on the Dutchmen in the locker room.

If that tongue-lashing sped up the maturation process for the Dutchmen—who open CAA play at Towson Saturday—then the exhaustion of Monday will have been worth it for Pecora, who looked as likely to sleep 12 hours as he did to stare at the ceiling all night.

“Did we play the way I want us to play? No,” Pecora said. “Did we play well enough to win big games the rest of the year? No. But we found a way to win a game at home.”

3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. Fairfield 11/30)
3: Charles Jenkins
2: Nathaniel Lester
1: Cornelius Vines

Charles Jenkins 12
Nathaniel Lester 10
Cornelius Vines 5
Greg Washington 5
Chaz Williams 5
Halil Kanacevic 4
Miklos Szabo 2

Email Jerry at defiantlydutch@yahoo.com or follow Defiantly Dutch at http://twitter.com/defiantlydutch. 

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