One of Tom Pecora’s favorite bits of self-deprecation is to declare the Flying Dutchmen perform so well in February because the players stop listening to him. But in their first game of March, the Dutchmen did exactly as he instructed.
Six days after Pecora said that he approached the CAA Tournament opener with the mindset that as long as “…we win by one, I’ll be happy,” the Dutchmen eked out a thrilling 68-67 win over Georgia State to advance to the quarterfinals today against second-seeded Northeastern.
The Dutchmen barely avoided season-ending disaster in recording their 10th win in their last 11 games. The Dutchmen blew an 11-point second half lead and fell behind by a point in the final minute, but Greg Washington capped a sensational final 20 minutes by first taking a pass from Charles Jenkins and hitting a long jumper from the top of the key with 16 seconds to play and then stealing the ball from Joe Dukes as the Panthers’ star guard tried driving the lane just before time expired.
“We knew it was going to be a tight game—we got it to 11 and we didn’t get separation,” Pecora said by phone afterward. “And in turn, they’ve got five seniors, those guys are playing for their basketball lives, so to speak. Came back with a vengeance and we had a chance to make some plays last and once again Charles Jenkins made a play to win the game. He saw [Washington] had a better look and he put a pass on to Washington who knocked down a big-time shot.”
The win was a euphoric one from a fan perspective (Editor’s note: WE’RE GOING TO RICHMOND WE’RE GOING TO RICHMOND!!! Stop back here in the afternoon and follow along on Twitter all afternoon and evening for more stories and on-site reportage) and further fueled the growing belief that there’s a little bit of magic surrounding this team. The last Dutchmen team to win a conference tournament game by one possession was the 1994 squad, which beat Troy State 90-89 in overtime of the East Coast Conference semifinals and Northeastern Illinois 88-86 in double overtime in the title game the next day.
The dates of those wins? March 5 and March 6. Destiny?
Of course, Pecora has much more important things to do than flip through a media guide looking for signs the stars are aligned, so he didn’t quite live up to words of a week ago by doing cartwheels after the nail-biting victory. The Dutchmen allowed Georgia State to shoot 48 percent from the field, the best performance by an opponent in a Hofstra win this season, and barely won the battle of the boards (32-31).
“I say all the time ‘the greatest gift I can give you is the truth,’” Pecora said. “If we play this way tomorrow, we’ll lose by 10 or 15 points to Northeastern. So we can’t mess around with that. We’ve just got to move forward and we’ve got to understand that and be mature enough to understand what we need to do.”
The Dutchmen, whose 10 conference wins were all by double digits, survived a nearly seven-minute drought from the field in the first half and went on a 16-7 run to take a 31-26 halftime lead. A 12-4 run in which Washington, Charles Jenkins and Chaz Williams all scored four points apiece gave the Dutchmen a 52-41 lead midway through the second half.
But the Panthers stormed back with a 12-1 run to tie the game with 6:37 to play. It appeared as if Ousman Krubally would will Georgia State to victory when he scored 14 of his 19 points in the final 10 minutes, including two free throws that gave the Panthers their first lead of the second half at 65-64 with 2:03 to play.
Miklos Szabo, who had 10 points and four rebounds in the first half but was limited to five minutes in the second half due to foul trouble and an aggravation of his elbow injury, hit his only basket of the second half to give the Dutchmen the lead again at 66-65. Williams recorded a steal on Georgia State’s next possession, but Jenkins missed a jumper and Dukes hit a layup with 30 seconds left to put the Panthers back on top and set up Washington’s redemption-filled final half minute.
Washington played just five minutes in the first half after he picked up two early fouls and was on the receiving end of a Pecora tongue lashing in the locker room. “I really got into him at halftime,” Pecora said. “I said ‘You owe us a second half.’ He can’t pick up two fouls in the first four minutes. He put us on our heels.”
Washington scored all 11 of his points in the second half—his biggest second half output of the season—and added two rebounds and two assists as he filled the void created by the extended absences of Szabo and Halil Kanacevic, the latter of whom fouled out with 2:03 left.
Washington also picked up Jenkins, who scored 24 points despite missing seven of his final eight shots from the field. Szabo and Williams (11 points and eight assists) also scored in double figures for the Dutchmen, whose reward for the narrow escape is a defining game this evening against a loaded and experienced Northeastern squad that won’t have any trouble getting motivated after the Dutchmen cost them the regular season title with an upset win in Boston Feb. 23.
An effort similar to the one Friday will send the Dutchmen back home late tonight. But what if the fashion in which the Dutchmen won generates the type of momentum and focus a team needs to make a deep, Cinderella-type tournament run?
“No doubt, if this team wants to become great, we’ve got to win this tournament, and to win this tournament, we’ve got to beat Northeastern [today],” Pecora said. “One of the things I said to the team in the locker room was it’s not uncommon, whether in a conference tournament or in the NCAA Tournament, [to have to] win in a close game early to get their attention and get yourself focused and then that locks you in for the remainder of the tournament.”
3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. Georgia State, 3/5)
3: Charles Jenkins
2: Greg Washington
1: Chaz Williams
Charles Jenkins 66
Chaz Williams 28
Halil Kanacevic 23
Miklos Szabo 21
Nathaniel Lester 19
Greg Washington 17
Cornelius Vines 17
Yves Jules 1