The task ahead of the Flying Dutchmen eight days ago was deceptively simple: Win three in a row, over a trio of teams that were sub-.500 in the CAA and overall, and suddenly the first home game of February against championship contender Northeastern would matter.
Of course, three wins in as many games seemed to be an awful lot to expect out of the Dutchmen, who won just twice in their first nine games of the conference season and were in the midst of a five-game losing streak in which each defeat was more demoralizing than the last.
As fans, it was better not to think too much about the possibility of a three-game winning streak for fear of setting ourselves up for more heartache. Just assume the Dutchmen would stumble somewhere along the way and win just once or twice during the three games against UNC Wilmington, Delaware and James Madison, hold out hope for a potential Towson-like run in the CAA tournament and look ahead to better days in 2010-11.
But now…now they’ve done it. Now they’ve gone and won three in a row. Now, after a 68-48 win over James Madison last night that was the Dutchmen’s most thorough and impressive in months, we are so very tempted to believe again.
The Dutchmen are 5-7 in the CAA, all alone in seventh place and a mere two games behind suddenly skidding William & Mary for sixth place. They are only the second team since the CAA expanded in 2001-02 to start 2-7 or worse and enjoy a three-game winning streak in the second half and one of only two teams in the CAA currently in the midst of a three-game winning streak (VCU has also beaten three straight sub-.500 teams).
Time to salivate over a quarterfinal rematch with George Mason in the tournament quarterfinals? Maybe not, but all the flaws of January looked fixed last night, when the Dutchmen were efficient on offense, dominant on defense and ruthless when presented with an opportunity to finish off James Madison in the second half.
“I think it was similar to the way we played at Towson in early December,” Tom Pecora said via phone after the Dutchmen landed back on Long Island. “I just thought it was a team effort to play within themselves. It was good. It’s good to be healthy. It’s good to be able to go to the bench and know they’re at full strength when they get their minutes.”
Five Dutchmen had at least nine points, led by Charles Jenkins with 20 points. Chaz Williams had just two points but oversaw an offense that produced 15 assists, the Dutchmen’s most in a win since they had 20 against Fairfield Nov. 30. He also continually broke the Dukes’ full-court press in the second half, when the Dutchmen had just five turnovers—less than half their first half total of 11.
Defensively, the Dutchmen limited James Madison to 34 percent shooting, the third straight game in which an opponent has shot 36 percent or less. The Dutchmen allowed opponents to shoot at least 45 percent in each of the final four losses of the five-game skid.
James Madison’s top two scorers, forwards Denzel Bowles and Julius Wells, scored 15 points apiece, but constant double teams on the 6-foot-10 Bowles limited his effectiveness and didn’t allow him to have the type of monster game that big men such as Charlotte’s Shamari Spears and VCU’s Larry Sanders have had against the Dutchmen. Bowles entered the game averaging 21 points and 9.9 rebounds a game but had just two boards and drew four fouls, which rendered him almost invisible in the second half.
“He was tired—we kept throwing different bodies at him, doubling him a bunch of different ways,” Pecora said. “We kind of got him out of rhythm early.”
Cornelius Vines, meanwhile, continued his strong defensive play by draping Wells, who was just 4-of-15 from the field and scored 11 of his points after the Dutchmen already led by double digits.
The most encouraging development of the night for Pecora was the performance of the Dutchmen’s oft-maligned veterans, who accounted for 87 percent of the Dutchmen’s offense (59 of 68 points).
That was the largest percentile of points by upperclassmen in a victory this season and second-largest overall behind the loss to VCU (the veterans accounted for 66 of the 68 points the Dutchmen scored in a game in which Williams did not play). Against Delaware Saturday, the veterans accounted for just 51 percent of the points (39 of 77), the lowest percentage in a victory this season and the second-lowest overall behind the loss to George Mason Jan. 4.
The veterans were particularly effective in the second half, when they combined to score 33 of the Dutchmen’s 38 points, including the first 21 as the Dutchmen turned a 30-25 halftime lead into a 51-39 advantage. Sparked by five points from Jenkins and four points from Greg Washington, the Dutchmen went on an 11-0 run immediately after James Madison missed two 3-pointers that would have tied the game at 32.
Washington scored eight of his nine points and pulled down nine of his 12 rebounds in the second half (and, it should be noted, was pulled immediately after hitting a layup for the Dutchmen’s final points with 1:25 left even though he was one point shy of the double-double. You know why? Because Pecora sweats class and elegance, that’s why!).
Other second half stalwarts for the Dutchmen included Miklos Szabo, who had six of his 12 points and six of his eight rebounds after intermission, and Nathaniel Lester, who scored eight of his nine points and pulled down both rebounds in the final 20 minutes.
Lester scored all his points in a span of 2:24 as the Dutchmen maintained a double-digit lead. He’s had eight points or fewer in 14 games this season, including seven of his previous eight entering Wednesday.
There would be no second half fade for the Dutchmen, who have blown second half leads of at least six points in five losses this year but whose lead remained at least 10 points for the final 16 minutes Wednesday.
“I think we played like a mature team,” Pecora said. “Our seniors playing the way they did really [lifted] us. Our ability to extend the lead in the second half, in their building, was very important, I thought.”
Of course, as encouraging as the victory was, plenty of caveats apply: Much like UNC Wilmington and Delaware, James Madison is another lower-tier squad enduring a nightmarish season. The Dutchmen are 5-0 against teams in the bottom half of the conference but have yet to author a performance anything like Wednesday’s against anyone in the top six, against whom they are 0-7.
Still, though, it seems appropriate the win Wednesday evened the Dutchmen’s overall record at 12-12— right back to square one as they prepare for Northeastern and another chance at that elusive Signature Win. It’s getting to be awfully tempting, this idea that the first half of the conference season was a matter of everything going wrong at once—a brutal schedule, an undermanned roster and some general bad luck combining to suck all the confidence out of the Dutchmen—and that February is once again shaping up as the best month of the season for the Dutchmen, who are 39-11 in regular season games played after Feb. 1 the last seven years.
“[It] can really define our season, if we find a way to win Saturday and keep our climb up the standings,” Pecora said. “If we play the way we played tonight, we can beat anybody. No doubt about that.”
3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. James Madison, 2/3)
3: Charles Jenkins
2: Miklos Szabo
1: Greg Washington
Charles Jenkins 44
Chaz Williams 24
Halil Kanacevic 19
Nathaniel Lester 18
Miklos Szabo 17
Greg Washington 12
Cornelius Vines 9
Yves Jules 1