Monday, January 4, 2010

College of Bill Lawrence 48, Hofstra 47 (Or: His Unfortunate Prescience)

Tom Pecora was REEHEE HEEHEE HEEEally unhappy after the Flying Dutchmen's heartbreaking loss to the College of Bill Lawrence.

One of the first things you learn upon becoming a sports journalist and heading behind the looking glass is that players and coaches are far less emotional about the games than the fans. They care—well, most of them anyway—but the long season demands from its participants patience and all the accompanying clich├ęs. It doesn’t do a player or a coach any good to emulate a fan and stay up all night obsessing over a defeat or celebrating a victory, especially during the regular season.

To every rule there is an exception, though, and there it was on Saturday, when College of Bill Lawrence coach Tony Shaver and the Tribe fans alike were believing the 48-47 win over the Flying Dutchmen was another sign of the magical season unfolding before their eyes. The win was the school-record 10th in a row for CBL, which was the consensus pick to finish last in the CAA but has beaten Wake Forest and Maryland on the road, entered Saturday ranked fifth in the entire country in RPI and should, by any reasonable standard, be ranked when the latest top 25 polls are released today.

Tom Pecora and all of Dutch Nation (snort), meanwhile, were left to bemoan, both in the micro and the macro, what could have been and what might have slipped out of their grasp.

If this game were to be simulated on a computer 1,000 times, Hofstra probably goes 997-3. The Dutchmen played a brilliant defensive game, limiting the Tribe to less than 50 points three days after it went into College Park and racked up 87 in routing Maryland. The Tribe entered Saturday as one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the nation yet was just 3-of-16 from beyond the arc and shot just 36 percent overall. The Dutchmen outrebounded CBL 37-27.

“Holding them to 35 percent [shooting] should be good enough [to win],” Pecora said. “That’s one of our game goals for every game. One is hold the opponent under 40 percent. One is not letting an opponent score 20 points. We did that. One is outrebounding the opponent. We did that by 10.”

And the most remarkable stat of all: Hofstra did not trail CBL for the first 39 minutes and 43 seconds. But oh, those last 17 seconds.

The Tribe’s Kendrix Brown drove a wide-open lane for his only basket and was fouled by Charles Jenkins. Brown hit the free throw to give CBL its first lead. After a Dutchmen timeout, a double-teamed Jenkins dished the ball to Halil Kanacevic, who fired up an errant 3-pointer from the right corner with three seconds left. Nathaniel Lester grabbed the rebound and appeared to be fouled as he hoisted the ball up just before the final buzzer—and by “appeared to be fouled,” I mean “was absolutely mugged.”

One official blew his whistle, seemingly indicating a foul, but he was waved off by the other two as Lester, Chaz Williams and Greg Washington stood by and pleaded their cases.

“I told the players in 30-some years of coaching, this is one of the best wins I’ve ever been a part of,” Shaver said. “We just found a way to win and I think that’s a sign of a great basketball team. Just their courage and their toughness today was very impressive.

“People have been telling me all year long we shoot too many threes and we can’t score if we don’t shoot the ball, we can’t win if we don’t shoot well. Well, we shot 35 percent and 18 percent from three and won against a great team on the road. So something good’s going on with these guys.”

As for Pecora, he stormed after the officials demanding an explanation and had to be held back by two staff members. “‘Game over,’ that’s all they said,” Pecora said. “He blew the whistle to end the game. That’s what he said. I don’t believe that to be the case.”

As livid as he was with the officials, Pecora was even more disappointed with his team for failing to record a seismic victory over the Tribe and its sky-high RPI. He wasn’t alone: The wife and I had some errands to run after the game and she remained silent in the car the entire time. I finally asked if it was something I’d said or done, or, more likely, something I hadn’t said (“Honey, I forgot to tell you, if you called your college loan people by 5 pm New Years Eve, they would have wiped away your debt”) or hadn’t done (fed and watered the cats).

“I’m just so pissed about that game,” she said.

(Note: It’s her damn fault. Sometime in the second half Saturday, she said “This better not be one of these games we lead the whole way and then lose.” Thanks honey. Next time we’re on the highway, why don’t you marvel at how we haven’t hit any traffic.)

“I’m worried they’re not going to do something special,” she added.

Pecora wasn’t offering such a pessimistic declaration, but he seemed more discouraged that at any other time this year. And one day after Pecora talked about how the Dutchmen’s season could be defined by these five games in 10 days, the question has to be pondered: What if the first game in that stretch proves to define something far greater than a single season?

“I talk all the time to these guys about their legacy—this would have been an opportunity for them to leave a mark in the history books by beating a team that was as highly touted as William & Mary,” Pecora said. “And we weren’t able to do that.”

The legacy so far for this core of Dutchmen is “almost.” The closest thing to a defining game last season came in the CAA quarterfinal against Old Dominion, which the Dutchmen lost 52-51 when Jenkins’ 3-pointer at the buzzer fell short.

This year’s team has played quite an improved schedule, but at some point, it is not enough to merely go out to Kansas and lose to the top-ranked Jayhawks or to almost beat UConn, Charlotte, St. John’s and CBL. What good is an upgraded schedule without a signature win or two? If the season ended today, the Dutchmen wouldn’t even be on the radar in the NIT discussion, never mind the NCAA.

Plenty of patience has been exercised with the Dutchmen, who are still inexperienced beyond Jenkins. He entered Saturday with 74 career starts, a mere seven fewer than the rest of the lineup—Lester, Miklos Szabo, Greg Washington and Chaz Williams—combined.

But patience cannot be limitless, especially in college basketball, where careers are cruelly finite. And the calendar dictates when youth is no longer an excuse. Guess what? It happened at midnight Friday morning.

And guess what? The last Biggest Game Ever played at Hofstra Arena was won by a team with two seniors, two juniors and a sophomore in its starting lineup. One of those seniors was Adrian Uter, a junior college transfer. The other was Aurimas Kieza, who entered 2005-06 with 41 starts—one more than junior Carlos Rivera, eight more than sophomore Antoine Agudio and 10 fewer than junior Loren Stokes.

The Dutchmen have won with inexperienced teams that played beyond their years. It is time for this team to take that leap, and despite the crushing disappointment of Saturday, there was evidence at least one player is ready to do so. Lester led the Dutchmen with 14 points and 10 rebounds, drew two fouls in the first 26 seconds of the second half and took eight of the team’s 10 free throw attempts.

It is time for him to do that consistently—he has scored in double figures in consecutive games just twice this year—and it is time for Szabo and Washington, who have gone to the line more than four times in just five of 28 games this season, to be more than decoys in the paint. And yes, it is even time for Jenkins to play like Loren Stokes all the time, not most of it.

“This is a poor game for Charles—he’s 5-of-13 from the floor, he’s 12 points and two rebounds in 40 minutes,” Pecora said. “Our great players have always filled up boxscores. They score points, they rebound, they defend, they have a good assist-to-turnover ratio. And he’s still working on it. He’s only a junior.”

Which means Jenkins—along with everyone else in the lineup except Williams—is closer to the finish line than the start. So if not now for the Dutchmen, then when?

“It sure does sting, because you only get so many opportunities in life,” Pecora said. “And when you’re young, sometimes you don’t realize that. But when you’re old, like me, you realize it. And you realize when you get a chance to win a big game like this, you better take advantage of it, because it may not come along that often.”

3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. College of Bill Lawrence, 1/2)
3: Nathaniel Lester
2: Charles Jenkins
1: Halil Kanacevic

Charles Jenkins 21
Nathaniel Lester 18
Chaz Williams 14
Halil Kanacevic 11
Greg Washington 8
Cornelius Vines 7
Miklos Szabo 5

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1 comment:

Unknown said...

Jerry, the problem is that the offense is predicated around the guards. That's why Washington and Szabo don't get the ball. They are mostly out there setting high screens for Jenkins, Williams and Lester.

They had as many attempts combined in the Mary game as Vines had (all but one were of course of the three point variety and he was 1 of 9). And all of Washington's shots, sans one, were outside jumpers. The one exception was a post play where he easily banked it in for too.

The only one who demands the ball in the post is the freshman Kanacevic. Maybe its time that he starts. But maybe also they need to design plays to Washington to post up and demand the ball more.

As usual Jerry, great articles. Keep up the good work.