Sunday, March 7, 2010

Northeastern 74, Hofstra 71 (Or: Some will win, some will lose, some are born to sing the blues)

In an evening filled with memorable images, the most revealing and unforgettable happened as the Flying Dutchmen and Northeastern walked to center court for the overtime tipoff. Matt Janning, Northeastern’s star senior, strolled past Charles Jenkins and slapped hands with the CAA Player of the Year.

“I went up to him and said ‘Let’s do this one more time,’” Janning said.

They had so much fun the first time they did it a second time, and it’s somewhat surprising the two teams didn’t stick around Richmond Coliseum until well after midnight. But Janning willed his Huskies to victory last night as he had a hand in the two baskets that tied the game at the end of regulation, drained a tying 3-pointer in the first overtime and drilled the go-ahead 3-pointer in the second overtime as Northeastern hung on for a 74-71 double overtime win in an instant classic in the CAA quarterfinals.

The Huskies advance to tonight’s semifinal against William & Mary and immediately become the adopted team of Defiantly Dutch. The Dutchmen, whose only two losses in the last 12 games came at the hands of Northeastern, head home this morning, wondering, for the second straight season, what could have been after a narrow and heartbreaking quarterfinal loss.

“Someone’s gotta win and somebody’s gotta lose,” Tom Pecora said.

My wife and I will head home at some point today, too, wishing the weekend was one or, preferably, two days longer. The yellowed good luck T-shirts I packed for Sunday and Monday will return to my bureau unworn. We no longer have to wonder how we’ll pull off an all-night drive home Monday, or how she would function at school Tuesday.

I had a particularly cheesy video ready to go for Monday morning and was imagining the euphoric championship-winning Tweets. But those will have to wait for at least another season, as will the celebratory spin of this Defiantly Dutch anthem. Despite the thousands of words I wrote in an attempt to will it to happen, the greatest second half run in CAA history didn’t turn into the greatest Cinderella tournament run in CAA history.

Sure, the loss sucked, and, since the Dutchmen led for most of the second half and squandered a four-point lead in the final 90 seconds of regulation, will probably sting more than last year’s 52-51 loss to Old Dominion.

But sometimes you just have to appreciate the journey (or the Journey, whichever you prefer). This was the first double overtime game in the CAA Tournament since 1999, and presuming the planet survives December 2012, you can bet that anyone who witnessed last night’s game—whether in person or online—will remember it come 2021.

It was a phenomenal game—two teams playing their hearts out for the chance to play for one NCAA Tournament bid, matching for 50 minutes the other’s competiveness and passion and playing with a mutual respect that further bonded the squads—in which all the memorable plays ran together, creating the basketball equivalent of a tie-dyed T-shirt.

“Billy Coen, he’s one of my closest friends in the league and we talk a lot about both of our teams,” Tom Pecora said. “And Matt Janning is an easy kid to root for. He’s a wonderful young guy.”

“Charles Jenkins is a great player and you can’t help but respect his talent,” Northeastern forward Manny Adako said. “They’re so talented on defense. Greg Washington is always blocking shots. They play really well together and they don’t really talk trash at anybody. You can tell they’re a family. You have to respect that. They just go out there, having fun and playing hard.”

For most of the second half, it seemed as if the Dutchmen’s effort would translate into an upset win. They didn’t trail for the final 11:47, held at least a two-possession lead for much of that time and had all the momentum heading into the final few minutes thanks to an impassioned performance on the offensive boards that generated three second chance baskets down the stretch.

Jenkins (24 points) was the one willing his team to victory, hitting his only two 3-pointers of the game to give the Dutchmen their first two leads of the second half as well as a layup with 7:15 to play that broke a tie. Greg Washington once again made up for a foul-plagued first half cameo with a big second half, scoring seven points—four on a pair of thunderous dunks—and adding two blocks.

But Janning, who had 26 points in the greatest game ever for someone who shot 6-for-16, just would not let Northeastern lose. After the Dutchmen missed two shots to extend the lead to six with less than 1:40 to play, Janning went under the basket and hit a gorgeous underhanded layup to pull the Huskies within 52-50. Then, after Cornelius Vines missed a 3-pointer but grabbed his own rebound, Janning stole the ball from Jenkins with 19 seconds left, led the Huskies up the court without calling a timeout and, a la Jenkins the night before, dished underneath to Kauri Black, who hit the tying basket with six seconds left.

Jenkins, who missed a game-winning shot at the buzzer in the loss to Old Dominion 52 weeks earlier, got a decent look at the basket but missed a running 3-pointer as time expired. Northeastern had all the momentum as well as fresher bodies in the overtime, especially once Chaz Williams fouled out less than 30 seconds in, but the Dutchmen staved off elimination in remarkable fashion in the final half-minute, first with the are-you-kidding-me Vines alley-oop pass to Washington, who caught the ball too far from the rim yet managed to volley it into the basket as he was fouled to give the Dutchmen a shot at the tying 3-point play.

Washington missed the free throw and Chase Allen hit two free throws with 20 seconds left to extend the lead to 60-57, but Vines hit the shot of his life with a 3-pointer and the Dutchmen suffocated Allen on the other end to force the second overtime, where the Dutchmen finally ran out of steam as Vines and Jenkins fouled out and Janning hit his second back-breaking long 3-pointer to give the Huskies the lead for good at 70-67 with 45 seconds left.

“A lot of experience was on the floor and you guys saw what happened to us here last year, [quarterfinal] loss to Towson,” Janning said. “And we’ve been saying all week that we didn’t want that to happen again.”

The Dutchmen did all they could to squeeze every last drop out of the conference season, ending the game with little-used freshman Yves Jules and walk-on Matt Grogan on the floor and with Halil Kanacevic taking the last shot. Kanacevic grabbed a rebound after Allen missed a free throw with 3.1 seconds left and awkwardly dribbled the ball to near mid-court, where he heaved a desperation shot as time expired that bounced off the top of the rim.

“I think their maturity and their experience showed and our inexperience poked its head out just enough,” Pecora said. “One of our freshmen makes a play that probably is a play that they wouldn’t make at this time next year, whether it’s a rebound or whether it’s getting us a good look at the basket or whatever it might be.”

As he spoke, Jenkins sat to his left rubbing his temple and a red-eyed Vines sat to his right. “I just hate losing,” Jenkins said, his voice barely audible.

Vines, who came as far in the last month as any player has ever come under Pecora, poignantly tried to hang on to the remaining strands of his collegiate career. As he left the podium, Vines picked up the placard displaying his name and school.

Vines walked out of the interview room and picked up a copy of the Hofstra student newspaper, The Chronicle. He absent-mindedly leafed through it as Jenkins finished some individual interviews. With Jenkins still chatting, Vines walked over to a TV showing the James Madison-William & Mary game. Vines got close enough to touch the television, gazing intently and sadly at those still playing as he gripped the towel around his neck, and grew so engrossed he didn’t notice when Jenkins left. Vines turned around, saw Jenkins was gone and walked off alone into the locker room.

“I just didn’t want it to be over,” Vines said a few minutes earlier. “I promised them I would give them everything that I had. For that to happen—for me to foul out—it just hurt a lot.”

The rest of the Dutchmen don’t want it to be over either, which may or may not have been denial talking. Asked if he could appreciate the Dutchmen’s sizzling second half run, Pecora instead said the program would be interested in a CIT or CBI bid if it was offered—a dramatic departure from his mindset a year ago.

“I’ll be on the bus drive tomorrow and I’ve got that legal pad with me all the time and I’ll be writing down combinations on the floor, and I’ll be on the road Monday morning, if not tomorrow night, going to visit kids that we’re recruiting,” Pecora said. “So that’s kind of therapy when the season ends, you know? The last thing you want to do is sit around and mope.”

The rest of us alternate sitting around and moping with wishing for a CBI or CIT bid, because it delays the inevitable reboot of this whole process—or spending 50 or 51 weeks hoping the next season is finally the one in which our investment pays off with euphoria and not heartbreak the first weekend of March and it’s somebody else’s coach who is unwittingly channeling Journey at the podium.

“I’m not ready to be a senior at Hofstra,” Jenkins said. “I’m having a great time at my school and the last thing I want to think about is being a senior. That’s something I’m not looking forward to.”

Maybe, after a game that had it all and still left us wanting more, he—and we—can wait a little longer for next season to begin.

3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. Northeastern, 3/6)
3: Charles Jenkins
2: Cornelius Vines
1: Greg Washington

Charles Jenkins 69
Chaz Williams 28
Halil Kanacevic 23
Miklos Szabo 21
Cornelius Vines 19
Nathaniel Lester 19
Greg Washington 18
Yves Jules 1

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