Thursday, March 11, 2010

“And they are going crazy here at Hofstra Arena. The Flying Dutchmen are going to the Big Dance.”

Yup. I'm in there somewhere.

As Rick Apodaca stepped to the line for the two free throws that would ice the Flying Dutchmen’s 76-69 victory over Delaware in the America East championship game 10 years ago this afternoon and the sweaty, delirious, probably-have-no-idea-who-Butch-van-Breda-Kolff-was crowd gathered underneath the baskets to storm the court and receive its 15 seconds of ESPN fame, Tom Pecora thought of his first afternoon as an assistant coach at the Physical Fitness Center six seasons earlier and the very beginning of the ripple effect.

The 104-97 loss to new North Atlantic Conference foe New Hampshire in the first game of the Jay Wright Era amounted to a pebble being skipped across the water. And if Pecora or Wright chucked said pebble into the dusty, mostly unoccupied stands of the PFC, well, they probably wouldn’t have had a hard time finding it.

“There were like 150 people there and Jay and I looked at each other and said ‘What did we do?'" Pecora said in his office Wednesday. “But that’s what makes our success and what we’ve established here so special in our hearts.”

One hundred and seventy-four games after Wright’s inauspicious debut, the first of the Dutchmen’s back-to-back America East title game wins over Delaware not only completed the program’s rise from irrelevancy but also cemented Speedy Claxton’s status as the most important player in the history of Hofstra basketball.

Claxton, of course, was the key recruit from whom Pecora and Wright managed to land an early commitment and then hold on to even when the big-time schools came calling during his monster senior season at Christ the King in 1995-96.

The Dutchmen improved dramatically in each of Claxton’s first three seasons—from 12-15 to 19-12 to 22-10—but a thigh injury suffered by Claxton at the end of his junior year ended any NCAA Tournament hopes (the Dutchmen were eliminated by Drexel in the America East semifinals and lost to Rutgers in the NIT) and made his senior season the ultimate all-or-nothing proposition.

“It was really Speedy Claxton putting his stamp on this program forever, because he was the one to lead us back,” Pecora said. “If we hadn’t gotten there that year and gone the year after Speedy left, his impact wouldn’t have been any less. But perceptually, it would have been, you know what I mean?”

Claxton played as if possessed in producing a senior season that almost defied description. He racked up 19 20-point games, seven 30-point games and two 40-point games and won six America East player of the week awards on his way to being named the conference’s Player of the Year for the second time.

The Dutchmen, picked second behind two-time defending champion Delaware in the preseason poll, went 16-2 in conference but didn’t clinch the top seed until the penultimate game of the season, when Claxton sparked a game-ending 9-0 run to lead the Dutchmen to a comeback win over Maine on Senior Day.

A pair of relatively easy tournament wins in Delaware set up the epic title game against the Blue Hens, who led 35-33 at the half and appeared to be on the verge of sending Claxton and most of the sellout crowd of 5,124 home very unhappy when they took an eight-point lead with 14 minutes to go. But Norman Richardson’s 11 points sparked a 19-7 run for the Dutchmen before the Blue Hens mounted their own comeback to tie the game at 66 with five minutes to play.

A layup by Claxton and a nifty pass to Danny Walker for another layup turned a 68-67 lead into a 72-67 lead with less than a minute to play before the Dutchmen added the final four free throws. Though Richardson ended up leading the Dutchmen with 26 points, but it was Claxton’s typically huge performance—24 points, eight assists and seven rebounds—that lifted Hofstra to the historic victory.

Claxton went on to become a first round draft pick of the 76ers and dribbled out the clock as the San Antonio Spurs clinched the 2003 NBA championship, but upon returning to Hofstra for the retiring of his number 10 last season, he said nothing topped reaching the NCAA Tournament with Hofstra.

“It obviously had a tremendous effect on Jay’s career, it had a tremendous effect on my career, it had a tremendous effect on the guys’ lives who were involved with it,” Pecora said. “You know it’s something that, as a member of that team, whether you played a lot or you didn’t play at all, you were part of a special era, a special time here at Hofstra.

The Dutchmen’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament in 23 years felt like destiny, but the last five years have proven just how rare the storybook ending is for a senior looking to lift a program to the promised land. In 2006-07, the Dutchmen had two brilliant seniors, Loren Stokes and Carlos Rivera, who were fueled by the ultimate snub administered the year before by the Selection Committee, yet something seemed a bit off all season and good ol’ George Mason knocked Hofstra out in the CAA Tournament quarterfinals.

And last weekend, the Dutchmen were on the wrong end of a Claxton-like effort from Northeastern senior Matt Janning, but there would be no happy ending for the Huskies and their four senior starters as they fell to William & Mary, 47-45, in the CAA semifinals.

Such experiences have only made the memories of 1999-2000—as well as 2000-01, when the Dutchmen repeated as conference champions with four senior starters and two more seniors playing reserve roles—even more special to Pecora.

“It was just a very, very cool moment,” Pecora said. “You always think of the team first and the kids first and then you look at the guys you’re working with, Joe Jones and Brett Gunning. Brett’s with the Houston Rockets now, Joe’s the head coach at Columbia. And you just think about all the good things and the positive effect it’s going to have on all of us and our families and our children and things like that. It’s amazing, the ripple effect.

“So often we think of ripple effect in negative terms, [but] the positive ripple effect of an event like that—we had Mike and the Mad Dog here in the building [broadcasting the game on WFAN],” Pecora said. “So it’s all good stuff. It’s neat stuff.”

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