The Flying Dutchmen were cruising Friday night, dominating Western Kentucky for more than half the game and heading into the final media timeout with a double-digit lead. So why couldn’t I shake a general feeling of uneasiness?
Was it my unfamiliar surroundings? I’d never before watched a game at the house of blogging rival Gary Moore, and I had to keep one eye on him the whole time to make sure he didn’t knock me out with chloroform, steal my laptop and hijack my Twitter with clips of Moody Blues videos. (That’s a joke: Gary, his wife, their two adorable kids and their friendly dog were awesome hosts. And why would I assume he’d knock me out in a fashion used only in dated Hardy Boys books?)
Was it my lapsed Catholicism? The feeling that disaster is always around the corner, even when things are going great? Was it the sense the Dutchmen were playing 2- or 3-on-5 out there, with Charles Jenkins, Mike Moore and Shemiye McLendon providing almost all the offense?
Or was it the voice of Mo Cassara in the back of my head, telling me the Dutchmen are and will be a work in progress? Or was it just the pessimism of being a member of Dutch Nation (snort, I actually saw this T-shirt in the Hofstra bookstore the other day, I will mock anyone I see wearing it), where we are bonded by tales of woe going back three-plus decades?
I didn’t know, but it concerned me that I couldn’t return a late game text from a friend who roots for George Mason (yes, I have friends who went to George Mason, what, I’m sure someone in Megadeth likes Metallica and vice versa) with 160 characters of unprintable trash texting, especially since Mason had already been routed by North Carolina State. When he asked who was winning this game, I typed Hofstra by 13 and added “fingers crossed!”
I should have crossed them tighter, because it happened and my unspoken fears came horrifically true. Western Kentucky came back from a 13-point deficit in the final 3:52 to stun the Dutchmen, 62-60, and relegate Hofstra to the seventh-place game against Nebraska Sunday morning at 10:30.
This one stung, on multiple levels, and was the type of defeat so demoralizing that even people who typically take great pleasure in my misery were sympathetic. (I’m sure I’d return the favor, Mason Nation!) We’ve suffered through a lot of tough losses, us Dutchmen fans, but I can’t remember one quite like this. I’m not sure I could uncover the biggest blown lead by the Dutchmen in the final four minutes of a game, nor that I’d be sadistic enough to try.
As we sat on his couches, plastered there by shock and dismay, Gary suggested the 95-87 overtime loss to Drexel Feb. 8, 2007 that ended the Dutchmen’s 28-game regular season home winning streak was comparable to this one. But the Dutchmen needed almost 11 minutes to squander an 11-point lead that night.
At least two factors made this one far tougher than that loss. The final three minutes and change completely negated the first 36 minutes and change, during which it looked like the Dutchmen would produce a statement win by a young coach and his inexperienced team.
The Dutchmen were in danger of getting blown out when they opened the game in a 4-of-20 funk from the field and fell behind 16-8 midway through the first half. But over the next 24 minutes, the Dutchmen were 17-of-30 from the field as they outscored Western Kentucky 40-18. Defensively, the Dutchmen’s zone defense suffocated the Hilltoppers, who shot just 9-of-33 and committed 12 turnovers from the midway mark of the first half through the 3:50 mark of the second half.
It wasn’t a perfect stretch by the Dutchmen, who got all but six of their 40 points from Jenkins, Moore and McLendon. The free throw shooting was shoddy (5-of-12). Point guard Dwan McMillan struggled running the offense and hoisted up some questionable shots and big men Greg Washington and David Imes were mostly silent on offense.
But still: Those looked like issues to worry about in the film room. With 3:55 left, the Dutchmen led 52-39 and seemed on the verge of a resilient win that would have made the trip a successful one.
I imagined we’d be talking this morning about how Jenkins finally has the wingman he’s lacked the last two years in Moore, who scored 15 points. He shot just 6-of-18 from the field but added a team-high 11 rebounds, indicating again he’ll contribute even when he’s cold. We’d be talking about how McClendon (10 points) gets more intriguing with every passing day.
We’d marvel at how the Dutchmen shrugged off the rout at the hands of North Carolina and looked much more inspired in general, pulling down 41 rebounds, including 15 on offense, and how they made a Western Kentucky team that put up 98 on St. Joseph’s a week earlier look helpless for more than half the game.
Well, we did talk about that, but those positives were overshadowed by a nightmarish 235 seconds that felt as if they lasted forever. Western Kentucky went into full-court press mode and forced the Dutchmen into five turnovers and a handful of near-misses after the final media timeout. When the Dutchmen did get the ball over half-court, they couldn’t do much with it: They took just three shots down the stretch.
The Hilltoppers grew red-hot from the field, hitting an amazing nine of their final 11 shots as they scored more than half as many points in the final 3:47 as they did in the first 36:13. Western Kentucky took the lead for good with a Reggie Miller-in-1995 sequence in which Caden Dickerson hit a 3-pointer before Brandon Peters stole the ball from McMillan and drained the layup to put the Hilltoppers up 61-60 with 29 seconds left. Moore missed a shot from just inside the 3-point line in the right corner with 12 seconds to play and McLendon missed a leaner as time expired to complete the collapse.
It took a while for the astonishment at what we’d just witnessed to fade, but once it did, the big picture came into focus as well as the gnawing feeling this is last season all over again.
The Dutchmen suffered a bunch of close, tough losses in the early part of 2009-10—none tougher than the 48-47 loss to William & Mary in the January CAA opener, a game in which the Dutchmen didn’t trail until the Tribe scored its final basket—but as disheartening as those were, the idea was those pains would create some gains this year. The Dutchmen’s best players were all underclassmen. There’s always an urgency to win, but at least there was more on the horizon for Jenkins.
Now? Now the best player most of us have ever seen at Hofstra is a senior. Every game is his last something, but he’s surrounded by newcomers adapting to Division I ball. The words Tom Pecora uttered after the loss to Charlotte that inspired me to first quote Aerosmith 360 days ago—“When you have five new guys, everyday is a new experience and everyday is a learning experience”—could just as easily be uttered now by Cassara.
How’s this for mind-blowing: Of the six players who saw double-digit minutes last night, only Jenkins and Washington have ever played that many minutes in a Hofstra game settled by a single possession.
It was also, of course, the first time Cassara had been involved in a close game as a D-I head coach, and I’m sure there’s things he’ll do differently next time. But a lot of what went on last night was a matter of necessity, particularly his sticking with McMillan at point guard in the final minutes.
Who else is he going to play? McMillan is the only pure point guard on the roster until Brad Kelleher gets back, and be careful viewing him as the savior, since he’ll have gone almost two years between competitive games whenever the NCAA finally frees him from its gulag. Stevie Meija is not coming through that door, at least not this year.
In the front court, meanwhile, what can Cassara do if Washington is scoreless and Imes produces just three points? All the backup big men are raw freshmen who aren’t ready to contribute offensively. Adrian Uter is not coming through that door, at least not with remaining eligibility.
Last night was proof that the collective inexperience of the Dutchmen means there will be some moments of great encouragement, and some moments that have us gazing skyward to see if it’s falling. This is a work in progress, and the Dutchmen will be better for what they went through Friday.
But will it happen in time for Jenkins to enjoy it? Shortly before 7 am today, Jenkins appeared on Twitter and wondered why he wasn’t sleeping yet. I’m pretty sure we both know what’s keeping him up nights.
3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. Western Kentucky, 11/19)
3: Charles Jenkins
2: Mike Moore
1: Shemiye McLendon
Charles Jenkins 9
Mike Moore 4
Shemiye McLendon 2
Greg Washington 2
David Imes 1