Monday, February 8, 2010

Northeastern 75, Hofstra 55 (Or: NU’s train kept a-rollin…)

Way back when they were getting along, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry were singing about fellow Bostonians Northeastern.

The end result Saturday wasn’t surprising, not even to those of us who are as bipolar on the keyboard as the Flying Dutchmen have been on the basketball court. Sure, three wins in eight days had me—err, us—stepping away from the ledge and investigating just how long it takes to drive to Richmond and wondering the Dutchmen would be sent in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. But even I—err, we—realized the scope of the task against a Northeastern squad that is road-tested and playing as well as anyone in the CAA.

But to partake in the scene in the few minutes before and after the opening tap was to be shocked at the sight of the Dutchmen’s second-stringers pressing against Northeastern’s second-stringers in the waning minutes, as well as that of Tom Pecora sitting alone at the podium following a 75-55 loss that ranked as the program’s most lopsided home defeat in more than 14 years.

In the moments leading up to the introduction of the Dutchmen’s starting lineup, the five players—with Charles Jenkins at the center—swayed to the music blaring out of the Arena’s speakers. Cornelius Vines did exaggerated jumps as he neared center court, as if he was on a diving board preparing to land the world’s biggest cannonball, before he turned towards the Lions Den and waved his arms enthusiastically.

And then the Dutchmen opened with a sensational five minute burst in which they raced out to a 15-2 lead, got off 15 shot attempts, crashed the boards to the tune of a 13-3 advantage and forced Northeastern to miss its first six shots from the field. Jenkins punctuated a 3-pointer with one of his patented whirling fist pumps, and seconds later, Huskies coach Bill Coen had to use a timeout even though the first media timeout was less than a minute away.

It would have been foolish to expect a wire-to-wire rout by the Dutchmen, but victory—not just any victory, but the long-awaited Signature Win—was certainly close enough to grab. Pecora would be flanked during post-game interviews by Jenkins and Greg Washington, the smiles of the three men stretching from one end of the interview room to the other as they talked about a season turned almost completely around in a 10-day span.

Except Northeastern coolly scored the next 16 points in a span of less than four minutes and outscored the Dutchmen 73-40 in the final 34-plus minutes. The game didn’t turn lopsided right away: The Dutchmen actually withstood the Huskies’ first flurry and entered the half with a 32-30 lead as well as a 30-12 rebounding advantage.

The 3,417 in attendance expected a classic final 20 minutes, but the Huskies dominated every second of the second half as they suffocated the Dutchmen on defense and displayed ruthless efficiency and crispness on offense.

The Dutchmen missed their first 11 shots of the second half, didn’t score from the field until almost 10 minutes had passed and didn’t break double digits until the 5:18 mark. Miklos Szabo had a brilliant first half (nine points and six rebounds in 19 minutes) but was limited to one point and two boards in just nine minutes the rest of the way. Greg Washington, who had five points and six rebounds despite just playing seven minutes in the first half due to early foul trouble, missed all five of his shots in the second half, though he did pull down four rebounds.

“Our big guys were getting driven away,” Pecora said. “Their bigs just kind of drove us out of what we call prime time, and we were making all our catches at eight and 10 feet instead of four and six feet. That’s something that we had talked about at halftime. They were definitely the more physical team.”

In addition, Charles Jenkins took just four shots in the second half and had just 11 shots overall, barely half the 20 shots Pecora wants him to take every game. Jenkins had almost as many points from the free throw line (six) as from the field (eight).

“We can get away with that against some of the lesser teams, but against the best teams, he’s got to rise to the occasion and make plays,” Pecora said. “We don’t have the overall balance [the Huskies] do. We’re not going to get a number of people [involved]. We want to get Charles touches because he is the catalyst for our offense.”

The Huskies, meanwhile, shot a blistering 57 percent in the second half. Manny Adako and Chaisson Allen filled up the boxscore—the duo, who combined to score just five points in the first half, outscored the Dutchmen 17-3 by themselves during a span of 6:35—but it was Matt Janning who earned a Wayne Gretzky comparison from Pecora by flawlessly setting up the two for high-percentage shots.

“Well, I think they showed why they’ve won 13 of their last 14 in the second half,” Pecora said. “We had talked at halftime about the first five minutes—I knew Billy would get on them about the rebounding advantage we had and they would come out a little fired up.”

The Huskies spent the final 10 minutes taking the air out of the ball, hoisting just nine shots in that span as they made it all but impossible for the Dutchmen to regain any momentum. The Dutchmen scored consecutive baskets just once, at which point Coen called a timeout with 9:35 left and Northeastern still up 50-40.

“Their patience and their pose running [their] offense—they’re very comfortable scoring at the end of the shot clock,” Pecora said. “So once they extended their lead…”

Northeastern’s dominating victory provided sobering proof of how large the gap is between the Dutchmen and the top teams in the league. The Dutchmen are 0-8 against the six teams ahead of them in the standings. They opened January by losing to William & Mary and George Mason by a combined five points but have dropped their last six games to upper-echelon teams by an average of 13.7 points.

The loss Saturday might finally have shifted Pecora’s focus to the future. Pecora hasn’t been afraid to blister the Dutchmen following defeats nor to hold one-sided closed door meetings with players, but he sounded Saturday as if he’s just about done raising his voice.

With eight players scheduled to return next season—as well as redshirts Paul Bilbo and Mike Moore and, who the hell knows, maybe even Brad Kelleher—a gentler touch will be necessary as the Dutchmen try to build a foundation and generate some confidence.

“There’s teams in the past I might ride real hard for two days,” Pecora said. “I think we’re too far down the line for that with this group. They have to have some pride in the fact that somebody came in here and beat their tails in pretty good.”

And while Pecora is certainly still playing for this season and the hope the Dutchmen get hot at the right time and mount a Cinderella run in Richmond, the lineup as time expired—senior Cornelius Vines, Washington, reserve junior Nathaniel Lester and freshmen Chaz Williams and Yves Jules, the latter of whom didn’t play until the final 4:02—spoke volumes for the approach the rest of the way.

“We have things to work on the last two minutes of that game,” Pecora said. “I want them to work on full court trap and things that we need to get better at…I want our young guys to experience certain things, so when it matters, we’re better at it.”

3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. Northeastern, 2/6)
3: Miklos Szabo
2: Charles Jenkins
1: Halil Kanacevic

Charles Jenkins 46
Chaz Williams 24
Miklos Szabo 20
Halil Kanacevic 20
Nathaniel Lester 18
Greg Washington 12
Cornelius Vines 9
Yves Jules 1

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