Yeah I'm going to the well with Pat Benatar again. You wanna make something of it?
The usual game story will be coming later today, after I hopefully get the chance to talk to Tom Pecora, because the Flying Dutchmen’s seismic 73-62 win last night over Northeastern certainly deserves a perspective other than my own. But I could not let the morning come and go without making some observations about the game in general and what has suddenly turned into one of the most memorable seasons of the Defiantly Dutch Era.
I may repeat some of these thoughts later, who knows. Who cares. Last night was just freaking awesome.
It was the program’s biggest regular season win since the days of In Guards We Trust—certainly since the 77-66 win over nationally ranked George Mason exactly four years earlier (sweet freaking serendipity, how did I miss that?!) and surely the biggest and most unexpected and joyous road victory since the Dutchmen came back from a six-point deficit in the final 36 seconds of overtime to stun Drexel, 76-75, on Jan. 28, 2006.
The Dutchmen took on the most experienced and perhaps best team in the CAA, a squad that outscored them by 33 points over the final 35 minutes in Hempstead just 17 days earlier, and finished off Northeastern on its Senior Night. A team that has blown so many second half leads in agonizing losses this year outscored Northeastern 12-1 after the Huskies tied it at 61-61 with 3:19 to play.
I’m not usually one to bellow declarations about how fans should act, since fandom is by its very definition not exactly the most logical thing in the world and everyone is entitled to have out-of-whack expectations. But if you’re sitting there today still squawking about how Pecora has something to prove, or how Player X and Player Y still suck, or how this team’s season will be a disappointment if it ends short of the NCAA Tournament for the ninth straight year, then you know what, just go freaking root for one of those insufferable BCS teams. You don’t deserve Hofstra, and Hofstra doesn’t deserve you.
Do you realize what we are seeing here? Last night was confirmation: This is the finest job Pecora has ever done, and if you don’t want him to stay here forever, again, you are just rooting for the wrong school or irrationally mad at him because the president likes him and his sport and didn’t execute it.
The Flying Dutchmen were absolutely finished—2-7 in a conference so competitive that just nobody ever bounces back from such a wretched start. And yet here they are this morning, at 9-8 and already very likely the authors of the greatest second half run in the history of the CAA (I’ll get to checking on that in the next couple days).
Pecora took a broken team, devoid of confidence as well as any sort of proof it could beat an elite team, and he put Humpty Dumpty back together. He did it with his usual combination of fire, compassion and, yes, motivational cheese (“Climb To Glory,” anyone?).
He stayed patient with his five veterans when everyone else—myself most certainly included—was ready to bag 2009-10 and see what Yves Jules, David Imes, Halil Kanacevic and Chaz Williams could do with Charles Jenkins at the expense of Cornelius Vines, Miklos Szabo, Greg Washington and Nathaniel Lester.
And look at how the core made possible a win that was unimaginable not even three weeks ago. The game-ending run featured the maturation moment we’ve all been waiting for: Jenkins scoring eight of those points and emerging as a true superstar in the vein of Speedy Claxton or Loren Stokes. It was a great player willing himself out of a subpar performance—Jenkins flirted with the most unlikely QUADRUPLE double in the history of basketball by compiling 20 points, nine turnovers, eight rebounds and seven assists—and refusing to let his team lose.
Vines played perhaps his best game ever in a Hofstra uniform, draining 3-pointers on consecutive possessions that gave the Dutchmen their first leads in the first half, playing suffocating defense throughout and playing 40 minutes in regulation for the first time. Washington was in foul trouble early and wasn’t much of a factor, but the one-time timid presence in the paint is suddenly a force down low, putting back missed shots, grabbing rebounds and tipping loose balls to teammates.
Lester made an incredibly pivotal play with just under seven minutes to play, when he chased down a loose ball near the Northeastern bench, saved it and dished it to Vines, who hit a 3-pointer that gave the Dutchmen a 61-55 lead. Szabo scored just two points in three second half minutes—a huge put-back for the first points of the half by either team and a basket that quelled fears of a repeat second half fade for the Dutchmen—but combined with Kanacevic to limit Northeastern big men Nkem Ojougboh and Manny Adako in the first half.
Is this how Pecora would have drawn it up in October, getting 15 minutes a night most nights out of Lester and being generally unsure from one game to the next what Szabo and Washington will do? No. But a great coach knows when to stop demanding a player turn into something he isn’t, and coax out of him what he is.
A great coach recruits a Williams or a Kanacevic, who are tough enough and talented enough to handle the fire of the CAA as freshmen. If not for Kanacevic (16 points, 11 rebounds) stepping in for Washington and Szabo last night, Jenkins never gets a chance to carry the Dutchmen to victory in the waning minutes.
A great coach takes advantage of a winnable stretch of games to turn a team riddled by self-doubt into one bursting with belief—in each other and in their coach. In the process, he does the same thing with the rest of us.
As fans, we get too high and too low because that’s what we do. We call a season a disaster in January, even when the team is wracked by injury and the program’s history suggests February is always much better. Coaches know you’re never as good or as bad as you seem. We can’t seem to get that through our collective thick skull, but it’s OK, because sports is the one thing in which we can be as passionate and irrational now as we were then.
The rest of life makes us bitter and jaded and skeptical, but sports is always there, inviting us to believe despite the knowledge that disappointment is likely somewhere on the horizon, driving the wrong way on a one-way street and quite possibly in a vehicle sporting colors suspiciously like those worn by Northeastern or Old Dominion.
What is happening right now will not be diminished, not one bit, by a loss in the CAA Tournament. Sure, there will be disappointment, because there is always disappointment when the season ends short of the NCAA Tournament.
But regardless of the eventual outcome, we should enjoy what is turning into the most wonderful of sports seasons, the one that delivers unexpected joy out of what appeared to be unfulfilled expectations. This team deserves your belief, your faith and, yes, your pride.
And you know what? You—we—deserve to make the investment, too.