For the Flying Dutchmen, interrupting the CAA season to play a thoroughly meaningless Bracket Buster game against Rider was the college basketball equivalent of taking a red-hot poker player away from a high-stakes Texas Hold ‘Em tournament and plopping him into a nickel-dime-quarter family game.
In theory, whether he wins or loses in the family game, the poker player can still return to the real tournament with his chips intact and his surging status unaffected. But the reality is the risk/reward scenario is way out of whack for the World Series of Poker wannabe, that winning a meager pot doesn’t make up for the possibility that a couple bad beats—regardless of how irrelevant and inexpensive—can change his mindset, mess with his momentum and screw up everything for the games that matter.
Such was the situation for the Dutchmen, who not only rebuilt their once-shattered confidence by winning six of their previous seven games entering Saturday but also established themselves as perhaps the most dangerous of the eight teams that will play in the first round of the CAA Tournament.
There was seemingly little to be gained from a win over Rider but a whole lot that could be lost in a, well, loss. What if the delicate mix the Dutchmen had created over the last four weeks was somehow affected by a defeat?
Turns out, though, that the Dutchmen did in fact find something valuable and pivotal in a 92-89 overtime win: Nathaniel Lester.
The performance of the junior swingman was a bit lost in a box score that busted at the seams. For the second time in eight games, five Dutchmen scored in double figures and a sixth player missed it by a point.
Greg Washington (12 points, 11 rebounds, eight blocks) once again flirted with the first triple-double in school history and kept multiple possessions alive by using his height to “tap” a loose ball to a teammate. Three other players, including Lester, came within either a point or a rebound of a double-double.
“I like to say that’s Hofstra basketball,” said Tom Pecora, who recorded his 152nd win as coach, tying him for second all-time with Paul Lynner. “We’ve always told our guys: We want players, we don’t want specialists. Our best teams here, we’ve always had guys who can fill up box scores [in] every category.”
The 92-point outburst also marked the second time in eight games the Dutchmen reached 90 in regulation or one overtime. The Dutchmen scored 90 points in regulation or one overtime just once in the program’s first 109 home games under Pecora.
Charles Jenkins scored 31 points, the second straight game he’s reached 30 points and the third time in four games overall. He had just 10 points midway through the second half but scored 10 in a row in a five-minute span late in the half and 21 in the final 15 minutes overall.
“What he did, once again, he had a quiet 30, and he did it in a way where he wasn’t a pig with the ball,” Pecora said. “He was making smart plays, he was still giving the ball up. He’s really matured as a player.”
Freshmen Halil Kanacevic (nine points and 10 rebounds) and Chaz Williams (12 points, nine rebounds, five assists, five steals, six turnovers) also just missed a double-double as the Dutchmen recorded their narrowest win of the season.
“[In] January, we couldn’t have won in an overtime game,” Pecora said. “We only had seven guys. [Jenkins] was banged up and Chaz was banged up. I don’t think, physically, we could have hung with teams for this long a game and this intense a game in January. But we’re a better team now than then.”
But without Lester’s best effort in seven weeks, the Dutchmen probably fall short, which leaves Pecora both less forgiving of the Dutchmen’s defensive performance (Rider star Ryan Thompson scored a career-high 38 points, tied for the most ever by a Hofstra opponent at the Arena and two shy of the Arena record held by Speedy Claxton, and the Broncs were 18-of-37 from the field in the second half and overtime) and forced to spend most of his time before tipoff Tuesday night trying to boost the Dutchmen’s collective morale.
Lester had 14 points and nine rebounds in 33 minutes and made up for a costly turnover at the end of regulation—his pass under the basket was intercepted and led to the tying basket by Rider with 13 seconds left—by scoring six points in overtime and draining the jumper that put the Dutchmen ahead for good at 79-77. He also blocked a 3-point attempt by Patrick Mansell with six seconds left, pulled down the rebound, drew the foul and his two free throws to ice the game.
In the first half, meanwhile, Lester played 14 minutes and put up six points and five rebounds as he filled the gap in the front court created when Kanacevic was forced to the bench with three fouls and Miklos Szabo was limited to four minutes by the flu.
“I thought Nat Lester made some big-time plays for us,” Pecora said. “He made a couple big jumpers, he had that big block. I was proud of the way he played.”
The 33 minutes were the most for Lester since Jan. 4 at George Mason while the 14 points marked his most since Jan. 2 against William & Mary and the nine boards only the third time since that oft-lamented loss to the Tribe that he’s had that many rebounds. He was also a perfect 8-for-8 from the free throw line, marking only the second time he has taken eight free throw attempts since he took 10 and eight attempts, respectively, in consecutive games against Florida Atlantic Dec. 29 and William & Mary.
Those efforts seemed to signify Lester was finally ready to emerge as the long-sought second option to Jenkins, but Lester slumped immediately thereafter, playing fewer than 30 minutes in each of the six games following the first Mason loss and averaging just six points and five rebounds in that span. He lost his starting job to Cornelius Vines prior to the UNC Wilmington game and entered Saturday having played more than 20 minutes just once in his first seven games as a reserve, which coincided with the Dutchmen’s 6-1 run.
“He’s been good off the bench a few other nights,” Pecora said. “I think he’s fitting into that role now, of coming off the bench for us and doing certain things. I think he’s very versatile—he’s like your utility infielder on a baseball team or a guy who can catch and play third and play a little bit of left field. You can play him at two, three or four. You can guard him on a big guy like Ryan Thompson, at times you can post him up when teams play small if he’s at the guard spot. So he’s a very important part of what we do.”
Still, for all of Pecora’s complementary words Saturday, the truth is nobody within the program expected Lester to be its Super Joe McEwing with just weeks left in his junior season. Lester was considered one of the best players in New York City during his senior year of high school in Brooklyn and was viewed as one-third of the Dutchmen’s new core—along with Jenkins and Washington—at the start of this season.
But Saturday was not the day to wonder why the Dutchmen haven’t gotten more from Lester, not after he gave them plenty more than anyone could have anticipated out of a Bracket Buster fraught with potential peril.
“This is Bracket Buster, we’ve never lost in it, and that’s something I had to use to motivate these guys,” Pecora said. “It can be a bit of a distraction—you’re so into your league and so into winning conference games and doing all those things. But the game gets started, your competitive juices get flowing and then you should be off and running.”
3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. Rider, 2/20)
3: Charles Jenkins
2: Greg Washington
1: Nathaniel Lester
Charles Jenkins 57
Chaz Williams 27
Miklos Szabo 21
Halil Kanacevic 20
Nathaniel Lester 19
Greg Washington 15
Cornelius Vines 14
Yves Jules 1