Monday, February 15, 2010

Hofstra 87, UNC Wilmington 70 (Or: With Corny channeling Craig, anything seems possible)

Three-time NBA 3-Point Shootout champion (and former head coach of one-time ECC rival Chicago State) Craig Hodges has nothing on Life With Corny!

One of the most compelling storylines of the season for the Flying Dutchmen has been Cornelius Vines’ attempt to morph from a reckless and emotional free shooter to a more careful and defensively minded player whose first instinct on offense is to get his teammates involved.

It’s a transformation, though, not a lobotomization, and so the old Life With Corny we all came to know and appreciate last season is always bubbling just beneath the surface. Nobody knows this better than Tom Pecora, who deviated from his usual script of trying to rein Vines in by encouraging him Friday to wax nostalgic against UNC Wilmington Saturday night.

“I was kidding around with Vines at practice,” Pecora said Saturday night. “I looked at his stats, I think he had 72 threes last year and he had [34] this year. So I said ‘You owe us 40 3-pointers.’”

Vines did his best to make up the deficit in one night, especially during a 63-second span midway through the second half Saturday in which he did his best Craig Hodges impersonation (click this link, kiddies, it is a PERFECT analogy for this particular Saturday night!) and draining three consecutive 3-pointers to single-handedly steal the momentum from UNC Wilmington and allow the Dutchmen to begin pulling away from the Seahawks in an 87-70 victory.

Vines’ first 3-pointer came immediately after Johnny Wolf’s 3-pointer pulled UNC Wilmington within 52-48, the closest it had been since the nine-minute mark of the first half, and began (in at least one Long Island living room, anyway) conjuring up images of this season’s second half collapses by the Dutchmen. His second 3-pointer gave the Dutchmen a double-digit lead for good and his third 3-pointer forced the Seahawks to call a timeout.

Vines finished with a school record-tying seven 3-pointers and a career- and game-high 24 points while also adding six rebounds, one shy of his career high, and three assists.

Hoisting plenty of 3-pointers is routine even for the “new” Vines, who is averaging 5.7 3-point attempts per game this season, down from seven a year ago. But draining them like he did Saturday? Not quite: He had one more 3-pointer Saturday than in his previous seven games combined and drained fewer than three 3-pointers in 21 of his first 25 games overall.

“Right after the game he says ‘I owe you 33, I’ve got to get working on it,’” Pecora said. “Obviously, I don’t expect seven a night. But it was the separation we needed. It changed the whole game.”

And, maybe, the whole season. Vines’ performance was the highlight of perhaps the best performance this year by the Dutchmen’s five veterans, who combined to score all but two of the team’s 48 points in the second half (Yves Jules dunked for the final basket with 1:49 left) as the Dutchmen survived an epidemic of foul trouble.

Greg Washington picked up his fourth foul less than four minutes into the second half while Miklos Szabo, Chaz Williams and Halil Kanacevic all had four fouls with five minutes to play. But Charles Jenkins made up for a subpar shooting night (6-for-15) by driving the lane regularly and hitting all nine of his second half free throws. Szabo had seven points and seven rebounds in the second half after recording just two of each in the first half while Nathaniel Lester finally re-appeared in scoring six points and pulling down five boards in the second half on his way to his first double-digit scoring performance since Jan. 2.

The five veterans combined for 76 points, by far their most in a single game this year and 87 percent of the Dutchmen’s total—tied for the largest percentage in a win with the

“First thing I said in the locker room was ‘The seniors,’” Pecora said. “They keep playing like this, we’ll win this whole thing.”

(Editor’s Note: He’s starting to sound like me)

As usual, this red-hot run by the Dutchmen needs to be viewed with a bit of caution. Sure, they’ve won five of six—all by at least 10 points—since bottoming out against Drexel Jan. 23, have all but clinched the seventh seed in the CAA Tournament and are already assured of being only the second CAA team since 2001-02 to post a winning record in the second half of the conference season after going 2-7 or worse in the first half.

Yet four of those five wins have come against three of the five teams that are within a game of the CAA basement: UNCW Wilmington (twice), Delaware and James Madison.

But…there was that Signature Win Wednesday over Drexel, and the Dutchmen’s last two road wins over James Madison and UNC Wilmington marks the first time the program has won consecutive CAA road games by at least 17 points.

“You go on the road and you win by 20 at Madison and 17 tonight—that doesn’t happen on the road,” Pecora said. “You’ve really got to be playing [well] to do that. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing. So I’m pleased with that. And obviously it’s got to continue at Delaware and then at Northeastern.”

The Dutchmen also displayed on Saturday a combination of crispness, cohesiveness and aggressiveness not seen all season. They had nine dunks, which may in fact be more than they had combined in the first 25 games. Washington, who is typically the world’s tallest jump shooter, scored all five of his baskets on dunks, including three in the first three minutes of the game.

Washington’s last dunk in that sequence gave the Dutchmen a lead they’d never relinquish. And the Dutchmen dominated UNCW Wilmington down low, recording more than twice as many defensive rebounds (28) as the Seahawks had offensive boards (13) and leading interim coach Brooks Lee to declare Hofstra was “…probably the most physical team that we’ve played all year.”

“Everyone, for the most part, played well,” Pecora said. “Greg Washington was tremendous, especially the first 10 minutes of the game. Until he got into foul trouble, he was electric, playing with energy and aggressiveness. Miklos Szabo made some big-time plays, could have had a double-double. And Lester did a good job off the bench.

“No matter who we called on—Dave Imes gave us good minutes when he was in [in the first half]—did his job. From top to bottom, it was a good team win.”

It was also the type of win that embodied the bipolar basketball the Dutchmen have played the last couple years and inspired some optimism that maybe even better days are ahead. Six weeks ago today, we were all wondering how the Dutchmen would respond to squandering an opportunity to beat nationally renowned William & Mary at home. Three weeks ago today, we were all declaring this season a disaster and merely hoping the Dutchmen had hit rock bottom.

Now? With a clearly defined seven-man rotation, an actual bench at Pecora’s disposal and the oft-criticized veterans leading a Dutchmen resurgence, who knows what we’ll be thinking three weeks from today, when the CAA championship game takes place?

“We were banged up through that stretch where we couldn’t win—they were trying just to compete,” Pecora said. “If you look at what happened in the league tonight, VCU lost to Madison and William & Mary lost to Northeastern. I really think this could be a tournament where whoever is playing well rolling into the tournament would have a legitimate chance. Hopefully we’ll have that.”

3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. UNCW, 2/13)
3: Cornelius Vines
2: Charles Jenkins
1: Miklos Szabo

Charles Jenkins 51
Chaz Williams 26
Miklos Szabo 21
Halil Kanacevic 20
Nathaniel Lester 18
Greg Washington 13
Cornelius Vines 12
Yves Jules 1

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