Thursday, January 28, 2010

Hofstra 93, UNC Wilmington 54 (Or: Nothing’s gonna stop us now!)

The party begins as the usual sellout crowd at Hofstra Arena reacts to the Flying Dutchmen ending their five-game losing streak last night. (Aurimas Kieza and Carlos Rivera showed up too, in uniform, in hopes of changing the Dutchmen's fortunes!)

On a night filled with images that were previously unimaginable to even the most loyal and optimistic Flying Dutchmen fan, this one was the most gloriously incongruous of all: Cornelius Vines—his confidence now restored and sporting an ear-to-ear grin—jumping on the back of a similarly smiling Greg Washington and riding him all the way into the locker room shortly after the final buzzer.

It was the most symbolic image, as well, after Washington put the Dutchmen on his back and had the night of his life in leading the Dutchmen to a historic 93-54 rout of UNC Wilmington that snapped a five-game losing streak.

We interrupt this blog for a special message for those in the audience who give the rest of Mason Nation a bad name: Anyone who looks at the box score and figures the Dutchmen were piling on probably shouldn’t be logging on to the computer without adult assistance.

If Tom Pecora wanted to, the Dutchmen could have won this game by 59 points (that could never happen!). But they began draining the shot clock early in the second half and took their last 3-point attempt with 9:25 to go. Chaz Williams had a fast break opportunity with about 14 minutes left and slowed down to burn clock, earning a warm ovation from a Hofstra crowd that knows class when it sees it, and particularly when it doesn’t.

Charles Jenkins was out of the game before the eight-minute media timeout. Washington played a career-high 38 minutes but took his last shot with 12:54 left. The Dutchmen’s last nine shots were taken over a span of almost nine minutes and hoisted entirely by freshmen or reserves. Sometimes, one team is just 39 points better than the other, and that was the case Wednesday. We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog.

Vines (who had 15 points, six assists and six rebounds and was so relaxed in the second half that he slapped Pecora on the back on his way down the court), Washington and the rest of their teammates weren’t the only ones riding the wave of euphoria. An overflow crowd stormed the court, where grown men wept and strangers hugged.

The party eventually made its way to Hempstead Turnpike, where the scene made Bourbon Street Sunday night look like Main Street in Hampton Bays circa Christmas Eve. Honking cars were tipped over, fires raged and the mob broke into Shuart Stadium and carried out the goalposts, because, well, let’s face it, they are of no use there anymore.

And really, can you blame Dutch Nation (snort) for such an over-the-top celebration? The world last night is far different than the one we inhabited the last time the Dutchmen won Jan. 6. Back then, Massachusetts was still represented by two Democrats in the U.S. Senate. The Indianapolis Colts were on a two-game losing streak and the New Orleans Saints were on a three-game losing streak. America was spending money it didn’t have on a wretched looking flick called Avatar.

Look at the world now. With such unpredictability around us, is it any wonder we embrace something that reminds us of simpler times?

Of course, ironically—in that it’s not ironic at all—last night was reminiscent of just about nothing at all we’ve ever seen out of a Hofstra basketball team.

The Dutchmen scored a stunning 54 points in the first half, more than they’ve scored in four games alone this season and the most points the program has scored in the first half in the Pecora Era. The 93 points were the most the Dutchmen have scored in regulation since putting up 98 against James Madison Feb. 24, 2007 (when they scored a Pecora Era-record 56 points in the second half) and the most they’ve scored in regulation at home since racking up 98 against William & Mary Jan. 24, 2004.

Four days after they trailed Drexel by 30 points in the second half of a loss in Philadelphia, the Dutchmen led by as many as 32 in the first half and by as many as 42 in the second half on their way to the program’s most lopsided win since a 39-point victory over Northeastern Jan. 4, 2000.

“We were kidding around in practice and we just said ‘Look, we’re due. Eventually the ball’s going to start going in for us,’” Pecora said. “And if we get back to guarding and rebounding, we’ll be OK. So obviously I was very pleased with it. I thought it was a team win.”

Jenkins scored eight of his game-high 24 points on a single play a little more than halfway through the first half. That is not a misprint. Jenkins was intentionally fouled by Jeremy Basnight as he went in for a fast break layup. He hit the basket and the two free throws. UNC Wilmington coach Benny Moss argued the call and was tagged with a technical foul and Jenkins hit those two free throws. And then Jenkins scored on the subsequent possession.

The eight-point play capped a 23-4 run for the Dutchmen, extended their lead to 34-9 and officially buried the Seahawks. “That was all coach—coach let me shoot the free throws,” said Jenkins, who looked as if he was smiling for the first time in three weeks.

“Good thing you made the first two,” Pecora said. “I would have pulled your ass right off that line.”

The Dutchmen had five players score in double figures for the first time in almost four years (since the win over George Mason Feb. 23, 2006), and Nathaniel Lester finished with nine points and missed two shots at making it a historic six players with at least 10 points: Lester missed a free throw with 5:18 left and a layup as the shot clock wound down in the final minute.

In that game against Mason, the five double-digit scorers accounted for every Dutchmen point. Last night, they received 15 points from the other four players to appear in the game.

“I was very pleased it was distributed the way it was,” Pecora said. “That’s good for a lot of reasons. It obviously gives us some balance, but it also makes the feel good spread out. If it was a game where one or two guys got 30 and 40, I don’t know if our confidence would rise as much as it will now by us sharing the wealth and by us playing unselfish and by a number of guys feeling good about themselves coming out of this game.”

Nobody felt or looked any better than Washington, whose disappearance the last several weeks coincided with the Dutchmen’s fade. But he was brilliant from the opening tip Wednesday as he scored the Dutchmen’s first two baskets and exceeded his season average entering the game by scoring six points in the first 2:33. Washington went on to almost post the first triple-double in school history with 14 points, a record-tying 10 blocks and eight rebounds.

Washington’s effort on defense sparked a resurgent performance by the Dutchmen, who allowed just one Seahawks player to reach double digits after allowing an opponent to reach a career-high in points in three of the previous four games. The Dutchmen pulled down 30 defensive rebounds and outrebounded UNC Wilmington 41-30.

“The past five losses, I haven’t been shooting the ball well,” Washington said. “And it feels good when you’re making shots. Once you make the first show, you’re going to want to keep going and going. It helps [him on the] defensive end. It gets the team going and motivated.”

It was the first time Washington has scored in double figures since Nov. 24, a span of 15 games, and the first time he’s pulled down at least eight boards since recording a season-high 13 rebounds against Florida Atlantic Dec. 29, a span of eight games.

“Gregory’s the key to everything we do,” Pecora said. “He was laying out in the lounge before the game today and I popped my head in and I just said ‘What do you say? Let’s play like the old days here, like you were playing early in the year and late last year.’

“He needs to be that active. And now it’s a matter of doing it all the time. We have to be consistent. We have to play at a high level the rest of the way.”

Of course, some of the enthusiasm generated Wednesday must be tempered. This is the same UNC Wilmington that won three CAA titles last decade—tied for the most with VCU—in name only. The Seahawks are 2-13 on the road in CAA play the last two years, during which it has suffered the program’s eight most lopsided conference losses.

In terms of the Dutchmen’s standing in the CAA, all Wednesday did was solidify their status as the best of the conference’s Bowl Subdivision teams (major props to UNC Wilmington beat writer Brian Mull for that gem). But for a team whose confidence was shaken—if not shattered—by the five-game losing streak, the rout was the greatest tonic possible.

“I backed off them the last few days and I just said ‘Hey guys’—these two guys [Jenkins and Washington] and Mikey and Corn and Nat—‘take ownership,’” Pecora said. “And I let them know they could play a little bit and give them a little bit more confidence. I think they lost their confidence, and I was surprised by that. But it just goes to show you that you can play a game on Saturday where you’re down 30 in the second half and four days later play a game when you’re up 30 in the second half. So that’s how crazy college basketball can be.”

3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. UNCW, 1/27)
3: Greg Washington
2: Charles Jenkins
1: Cornelius Vines

Charles Jenkins 39
Chaz Williams 21
Halil Kanacevic 18
Nathaniel Lester 18
Miklos Szabo 15
Greg Washington 11
Cornelius Vines 9
Yves Jules 1

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