Monday, November 29, 2010

Hofstra 67, Wagner 63 (Or: Stars Are Born)

David Imes and Stephen Nwaukoni--as well as their head coach--were far more impressive Friday night than Sky Corrigan and Mary Katherine Gallagher ever were. (And apparently I must post photos from movies inspired by Saturday Night Live whenever recapping a weekend win by the Flying Dutchmen)

As they exited the media room following the post-game press conference Friday, sophomore David Imes and freshman Stephen Nwaukoni were surrounded by kids asking them to autograph Hofstra schedule posters. If their performances against Wagner are any indication, Imes and Nwaukoni will be doing the same thing a year, except they’ll be signing schedule posters on which they are pictured.

Imes pulled down a remarkable 17 rebounds and scored 14 points in a passionate performance and Nwaukoni also had a double-double (13 rebounds, 10 points) as the Flying Dutchmen came back from a 10-point second half deficit to edge Wagner, 67-63.

“I think, coming out of Puerto Rico with three really tough teams and tough games, we were still feeling a little sorry for ourselves and trying to figure out how to win,” Mo Cassara said after recording his first win against a Division I opponent. “And that’s the biggest challenge for this team now, is to get better everyday and continue to learn how to win. I think tonight we did a few things down the stretch to learn how to win.”

That went for the players as much as the new coaching staff. The star-making performances of Imes and Nwaukoni—the first Hofstra duo to put up double-doubles in regulation since Aurimas Kieza (18 points, 12 rebounds) and Adrian Uter (15 points, 11 rebounds) against Northeastern Feb. 11, 2006—highlighted a fascinating game in which the Dutchmen maturation process took a big step forward before the eyes of the 2,542 at the Arena.

The Dutchmen appeared headed for a disastrous -looking defeat against a Wagner team picked 11th in the 12-team Northeast Conference when they trailed throughout a first half in which Charles Jenkins—this year’s schedule poster boy—didn’t score from the field. The Dutchmen fell behind by 10 a mere 126 seconds into the second half and saw starters Greg Washington and Mike Moore each pick up their fourth fouls within the next minute.

With the Dutchmen still down three at the end of the under-12 media timeout, Cassara sent this lineup on to the floor: Jenkins-Imes-Nwaukoni-Yves Jules-Dwan McMillan. That’s two first-year players and two sophomores who barely played as freshmen surrounding one of the most decorated players in school history.

“If you told me we were going to have that lineup in the game at the end of the game, I would say we were losing,” Cassara said.

Yet that quintet stayed out there for the next 11 minutes. The Dutchmen took the lead at the 9:56 mark on a jumper by Jenkins, who missed all six of his shots in the first half and his first shot of the second half before he drained his next six and ended up scoring 17 of his 19 points in the final 13:31, and took the lead for good on a free throw by Nwaukoni, who barely hit the rim on his first three free throw attempts but hit his next six from the line.

“I kept kind of leaning back to my staff, saying ‘Should we sub? Should we sub?’” Cassara said. “And then Mike and Greg and Shemiye had really been out of the game for a while and I really thought that we had done a pretty good job defensively. [Wagner] just hit some tough shots and I didn’t want to disrupt that.”

Cassara didn’t go to the bench again until there were 18.5 seconds left, when he pulled McMillan—who had a terrible time against the Western Kentucky press in the waning minutes of the 62-60 loss in Puerto Rico a week earlier—and Jules in favor of Moore and Shemiye McLendon. After Jenkins hit two free throws to give the Dutchmen a 66-63 lead, Cassara put McMillan and Jules back in, and it was McMillan who corralled the rebound and dribbled out the clock after Nwaukoni’s meaningless miss of a free throw with just under four seconds to play.

“Anytime we put the jerseys on, it’s going to be a learning process for this whole group,” Cassara said. “It’s a whole new staff. It’s a whole new team and we’re still learning how to win and we’re still trying to figure out what pieces to put in at what times.”

Imes ascended into the starting lineup over the summer and Nwaukoni was viewed as a valuable bench player because of his rebounding prowess, but not even the most optimistic observer could have foreseen how well they would play Friday, nor how they would almost single-handedly keep the Dutchmen in the game in the first half. Imes and Nwaukoni combined for 18 of the Dutchmen’s 21 first half rebounds, had 11 points between them and helped quiet a Wagner front court that broke the Dutchmen’s 2-3 zone for three easy baskets in the first seven minutes.

Imes was determined and dominant from start to finish Friday, when he was the best player on the court all night and left some hyperbolic Tweeter scrambling for descriptive terms other than “Goddamn Beast.” His previous career high for rebounds was seven, but he pulled down eight boards in the first 10 minutes Friday. Imes finished 6-of-11 from the field but saved his best basket for last, when, as the lone Hofstra player amongst three Wagner players, he grabbed a Jenkins air ball and muscled his way in for a layup that extended the Dutchmen’s lead to 64-61 with 1:07 left.

“I was like ‘I’ve gotta get this,’” Imes said. “One dude grabbed it, so I took it out of his hand and finished it. It was like ‘I’ve gotta get it.’ That’s the game right there, so I just made it my mission to go get that ball.”

Perhaps most impressive of all: Imes didn’t pick up one foul even though he spent most of the game giving up four inches to Wagner’s 6-foot-11 freshman Naofall Folahan.

“I just know at the end of the day, he is bigger than me, but I’m stronger,” Imes said. “So I should just have to use my body to get him off the paint as much as possible. And hopefully he goes over my back. It wasn’t too much of a hassle, to be honest.”

The consistency was particularly notable for Imes who tied his career high for points by scoring eight points before the first media timeout against Nebraska last Sunday but didn’t score again the rest of the game.

“I just came out knowing, from the jump, with Greg or without him, that I had to come make an impact,” Imes said. “The coaches [have been] saying that I need to start being more assertive with myself, be more aggressive. So I just took that as [a sign] this is my opportunity, so why not go out with some confidence and see what I could do.”

Nwaukoni’s confidence was tested against Farmingdale, when he missed five shots, all from underneath the basket. But the freshman has impressed Cassara with his work ethic, and the effort paid off Friday.

“The first couple games we had, I was kind of nervous, being that it’s my first couple of real college basketball games.” Nwaukoni said. “But today, I actually felt pretty good and I’m just really happy that I went out there and did what I had to do.”

“That kid is in the gym more than any kid we have,” Cassara said. “If you would have seen him shoot free throws in September, you would say there is no way that kid will ever play.”

And anyone who was told ahead of time Friday that Jenkins would have such a brutal first half (“That wasn’t me in the first half—that was the Thanksgiving Charles,” Jenkins said) and that Washington and Moore would play just 15 minutes apiece would figure there was no way the Dutchmen would ever win. But they did, in a win that indicated they still have pretty far to go but have already come pretty far.

“We’re going to continue to get better, we’re going to keep looking at different pieces in different roles,” Cassara said. “Guys are working hard, and you know what? Some of the guys that didn’t play that well tonight were cheering in there in the locker room, and that’s the sign of a team getting better and that’s the sign of a good team and that’s the sign of a team that’s learning how to win. And that’s what I’m most proud of.”

3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. Wagner, 11/26)
3: David Imes
2: Charles Jenkins
1: Stephen Nwaukoni

Charles Jenkins 14
Mike Moore 6
David Imes 4
Shemiye McClendon 2
Greg Washington 2
Dwan McMillan 1
Stephen Nwaukoni 1

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