Tom Pecora to random student: "I love you man, but I'm not giving you my Bud Light until you show up to more than one game a year."
After nine years as the head coach of the Flying Dutchmen and 16 years with the program, Tom Pecora would rather not have to wonder what if about the same thing at the end of every season. But hey, better to do so about the Hofstra students in the stands as opposed to those on the court.
“I don’t know what to do with these guys and girls,” Pecora said after the Flying Dutchmen beat Georgia State, 87-73, Saturday to cap a remarkable second half run. “It’s like, what do I have to do to get them over here? We had a blizzard and no one came. They were locked in there. Cabin fever.
“You’ve got four thousand, five thousand kids in a dorm. Get over here. It’s a great experience.”
Led by some dude dressed in nothing but a Speedo (you had to see it to believe it), the Lions Den did its best to make up for lost time Saturday as it spooked Georgia State into a positively Mason-esque performance (9-for-20) at the foul line in the second half. The boisterous performance of the student section fueled a festive atmosphere at the Arena, where a crowd of 3,964—the second-largest of the season—turned out just in time to say goodbye to the Dutchmen until November (or at least until the home NIT or CIT game, hahaha, I’ll be here all week, tip your waitresses!).
“It’s a huge advantage,” Pecora said. “When we go down there and play at ODU and VCU and those places and there’s seven, eight thousand [fans] and the fans, the students are crazy—it has a huge impact on the game. And I think it did tonight. It was great.”
Fortunately, as they do almost annually under Pecora, the Dutchmen view the calendar with much more urgency than the rest of the student body. The win Saturday was the fifth in a row for the Dutchmen, who have won nine of 10 overall and are 45-12 in regular season games played after Feb. 1 since the 2003-04 season.
That the Dutchmen managed to light up the scoreboard (they scored at least 73 points for the eighth time in 10 games; the Dutchmen reached 73 points just five times in the first 21 games) and record their fifth straight double-digit CAA win despite an imperfect performance is an indicator of just how far they’ve come since a 2-7 conference start.
The Dutchmen allowed Georgia State to whittle a 14-point lead to just one during a four-minute span at the end of the first half and the beginning of the second half. The Panthers outscored the Dutchmen in the paint 14-4 in the first half and pulled down 18 offensive rebounds overall, only the fifth time this season a conference opponent has recorded at least 18 offensive boards.
“I was mad at halftime, just because as coaches we’re always looking at the next one and you’re preparing yourself for a tournament,” Pecora said. “And they’re a dangerous team, they’re a very skilled team, they’re very athletic. They beat us up on the backboard.”
Chaz Williams once again ended up in triple-double territory (nine points, 10 assists, seven rebounds) and turned the ball over just three times, but he was just 2-of-12 from the field and was yanked less than three minutes into the game after hoisting a particularly bad-looking jumper.
The Dutchmen ended up with five players recording at least seven boards (including Halil Kanacevic, who racked up 16 points on 4-of-5 shooting from the field and 8-of-11 from the free throw line) and outrebounded the Panthers 53-42, the second straight game in which the Dutchmen have had at least 10 more rebounds than their opponent.
“I give them a hard time—Chaz had seven,” Pecora said. “So if he’s getting rebounds at 5-7, 5-8, these other guys have got to chase them like that. It’s that important and [Georgia State] thrives on that. If that team turns you over and they beat you up on the offensive glass, they beat you.”
Charles Jenkins and Cornelius Vines capped their own sensational second half surges and celebrated a birthday and Senior Day, respectively, in impressive fashion. Jenkins scored 29 points—the fourth time in six games he has scored at least 29 points; he reached that mark just once in the Dutchmen’s first 25 games—and is averaging 24.9 points per game during the Dutchmen’s 9-1 streak. He also pulled down seven rebounds, the third time in four games he has recorded at least seven boards.
Vines (18 points, seven rebounds) mustered up an appropriately theatrical performance in his final home game, draining his first two 3-point attempts and five overall in the first half. He cooled off in the second half, when he was 1-of-6 from the field (one of those misses was a dunk attempt, oh the humanity) and drew four fouls, but he drained a free throw with 1:38 left and departed to a warm ovation as he blew kisses to every corner of the Arena.
Jenkins and Vines accompanied Pecora to a post-game press conference whose buoyancy would have been inconceivable at the end of January, when Vines was occupying Pecora’s doghouse and Jenkins was battling a thigh injury and going through a stretch in which he scored fewer than 20 points eight times in 10 games.
Vines smiled widely throughout while Jenkins put his head on Pecora’s shoulder as Pecora talked about how he decided to “love” his players up after the brutal January stretch.
“After Mason I was mad—as mad as I’ve ever been [editor’s note: Me too!] and I got on them hard for two days,” Pecora said. “And then we went to Drexel and that loss was on me. Corn was hurt, he couldn’t play, Chaz and Charles were still beat up. And I just ran them so much the last two days because I was teed off. We had no legs and we got tatered down there. So I came back and I said to myself ‘That’s it. I’m gonna love ‘em up.’”
The new approach (as well as a healthy roster) yielded results beyond the expectations of even the most optimistic of observers. The Dutchmen are the first team in CAA history to finish with a winning record in conference play after falling at least five games under .500. Navy in 1987-88 opened 0-5 and improved to 6-5 before finishing 6-8.
From disaster to destiny? The odds are certainly against the Dutchmen making becoming the first northern-based team to win the CAA title by winning four games in four days, but for the first time since 2007, Dutch Nation (snort) enters the CAA Tournament pondering what is still to come instead of what could have been.
“Hey, look, we won nine out of our last 10, who am I to complain?” Pecora said. “We’re locked into our spot in the tournament. Friday night, it’s a good time to play. Hopefully we can stay down there. I always pack four suits. Hopefully this year I’ll get to use them.”