Monday, December 21, 2009

St. John’s 72, Hofstra 60 (Or: Now I know what it’s like to be a Red Sox fan)

The loss to St. John's means us Hofstra fans know what it's like to be long-suffering Red Sox fans like Sully and Denise. "You say Hofstra, I say Flying Dutchmahhhhhhn!"

Little-known fact: 99.7 percent of Americans think sportswriters are fans of the teams they cover. Which is really funny, since 99.7 percent of American sports fans are convinced that their favorite teams are covered by reporters who hate the team they cover. Confusing, I know. I think Alanis Morrissette wrote a song about it.

For the last six years—the first four of which I spent covering the Red Sox—I’ve had to listen to people tell me I root for the Red Sox. Such declarations usually come from Yankees fans, who, like zealots of a particular political persuasion, aren’t the most reasoned people in the world and are convinced that if you’re not with them, you’re against them. Which means they have a lot in common with the people who play for and run the Yankees’ archrivals, but I digress.

But now, after St. John’s 72-60 win over the Flying Dutchmen Sunday afternoon, I can finally tell Yankee fans I know what it had to be like for Red Sox fans this year, when normalcy was returned to a rivalry in which the historically tormented had become the tormentors.

Four straight wins over St. John’s and five wins in the previous seven meetings didn’t quite match the seismic impact of the Sox’ comeback from a three games to none deficit in the 2004 ALCS, but there was no doubt the once-bullied Dutchmen—who went 0-19 against St. John’s in the 1900s—had become the superior team, just like the Sox reigned supreme over the Yankees from 2004 through 2008.

Now, though? Like the ever-so-tolerable Yankees fans who can strut around in new championship swag as well as brag about the franchise’s 27 titles, the St. John’s fan has a retort for anything the Hofstra fan can say. The Red Storm has a recent win and history on its side, leaving Dutchmen fans to bellow about how at least Hofstra’s never played in the CBI.

And like the 2009 baseball season in which the Sox won their first eight games against the Yankees, there were extended periods of time Sunday where it looked as if the Dutchmen would continue their recent dominance of the Red Storm—particularly in the opening minutes of the second half, when the Dutchmen went on an 8-0 run to take a 44-37 lead and inspire memories of their dominant second half performances against St. John’s this decade. Hofstra outscored the Red Storm 204-151 in the second half of its five victories.

St. John’s promptly scored seven in a row to tie the game, but the Dutchmen trailed just twice—both times by a single point—in the first 17 minutes of the second half. Alas, the Dutchmen didn’t score from the field in the final seven minutes, during which they were outscored 18-1 and Charles Jenkins (a game-high 24 points) lapsed into the gotta-do-everything mode that defined his nightmarish slump last December and January. The symbolic sequence for Jenkins took place in the final minute, when he drove the length of the court and had two successive shots blocked.

It was a discouraging loss, because it was a winnable game, yet it was also a defeat that could pay dividends when the games really start to count after the New Year. The Dutchmen’s ability to absorb the Red Storm’s early flurries—St. John’s jumped out to leads of 10-2, 19-11 and 24-15—instead of getting run out of the building, a la last year against UMass, Northeastern, Drexel, George Mason and Georgia State, is another sign this team is far better than a season ago and a good bet to finish in the top four of the CAA.

As evidenced by the slow start and finish and their impressive mid-game play, the Dutchmen were their patented bipolar selves. But the best Dutchmen lineup Sunday featured freshmen Chaz Williams and Halil Kanacevic. Tom Pecora’s trust in the rookies was apparent when he yanked seniors Cornelius Vines and Miklos Szabo and replaced them with Williams and Kanacevic less than two minutes into the game.

Williams had a second straight outstanding game (a career-high 14 points with seven assists and just one turnover in 34 minutes), though the Red Storm began its closing surge when he went to the bench with four fouls, and Kanacevic pulled down 11 rebounds. I wouldn’t expect the starting lineup to change any time soon, but we may look back on Sunday as the game in which Williams and Kanacevic took the baton from Vines and Szabo, who combined for just two points, one rebound and two assists in 28 minutes.

The continued maturation of Williams and Kanacevic and the lack of a clear-cut favorite in the CAA are just two reasons why the long-term goal has to feel more realistic to a Hofstra fan now than it did to a Red Sox fan after the Sox suffered a four-game sweep at the hands of the Yankees in August. Or so I would assume, anyway.

“They’ve got a great opportunity this year if they continue to play well, as we do,” Pecora told reporters afterward.

3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. St. John’s 12/20)
3: Chaz Williams
2: Charles Jenkins
1: Greg Washington

Charles Jenkins 18
Nathaniel Lester 12
Chaz Williams 10
Greg Washington 7
Cornelius Vines 7
Halil Kanacevic 7
Miklos Szabo 5

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