Sometimes I wonder why I keep a running score at Flying Dutchmen basketball games. After all, this is the second decade of the 21st century, halcyon days in which pixel-stained homer scribes such as myself can get our hands on a full boxscore, complete with play-by-play and substitution patterns, no more than 20 minutes after the buzzer, even on nights in which the copy machine is busted.
How often will I need to refer to the running score in between tipoff and getting the final boxscore? Does the once in a while it comes in handy for Tweeting make up for the fact it is irrelevant by the time I get home and that my apartment is already filled with notebooks I will never look at again but won’t ever throw away? (That sound you heard was my wife yelling at me)
And then there are nights like Monday, in which I can refer to the notebook to know the exact point at which the 2,324 people at Hofstra Arena, as well as the Flying Dutchmen themselves and the dozens of Hofstra staffers located throughout the Arena, realized we were all a part of a special communal experience:
it wasn’t ez but it never is
Actually, “never is” was a single scrawl that looked like a worm, but there’s no real way to type that. Anyway, I frantically jotted those words down as Blur’s “Song 2” blared during a timeout with 3:30 left in regulation and the Dutchmen mounting a furious comeback that resulted in a enthralling, surrealistic, goosebump-inducing 92-90 overtime win over James Madison that will go down as so much more than one of the greatest regular season games ever played at Hofstra.
Granted I’m a cheeseball who came of age in the ‘80s, which means I try, with no sense of irony, to find deep meaning and symbolism in arena rock. But doesn’t that lyric—blaring over the loudspeakers right after consecutive 3-pointers by Charles Jenkins and Shemiye McLendon cut an eight-point deficit to two and brought those in attendance to delirium straight from despair without even a passing glance at cautious optimism—sum it all up?
Doesn’t it describe how the magic of Monday was in how 11 nail-biting minutes—in which the Dutchmen erased an 11-point deficit and then held on for dear life to their overtime lead in order to remain tied for first in the CAA heading into tonight’s showdown against fellow co-leader VCU—served as a microcosm of the entire season and the program that Mo Cassara is building as well as the euphoric ride the Dutchmen are enjoying just as much as their small yet loyal and, hopefully, expanding fanbase?
Anyone at the Arena Monday, even the casual observers, knows the back story, which was written about ad nauseum here from June through November and everywhere else the last two weeks. It was a season that could seemingly only be salvaged in the movies. But here it is, the end of January, and it’s no longer strange to envision Jake Taylor—err, Charles Jenkins—telling the Dutchmen the only thing left to do is win the whole bleeping thing.
“I don’t think anybody in here thought we’d be 8-1 right now, including myself,” Cassara said. “But this team is coming together as a group and as a family and they believe in each other. And that’s really from great leadership [which] starts at the top with Charles and Greg.
Fact is sometimes better than fiction and nobody could have scripted this start, nor just how that eighth victory was manufactured. The Dutchmen were down by as many as 15 in the second half. There was a span of more than 15 minutes—from 9:45 of the first half through the 13:46 mark of the second—in which they did not string together consecutive scores, during which Hofstra was outscored 36-21.
They were down nine when David Imes fouled out with 7:10 left, which left the Dutchmen further weakened against Denzel Man Beast Bowles (27 points, 10 rebounds), and were down 11 with a little more than six minutes to play. Like at any point in the preceding eight months, there were plenty of reasons for the Dutchmen to give up, plenty of evidence suggesting they were undermanned and could do nothing more than quietly fade away.
Yet once again, they did not. The Dutchmen forced five turnovers in the final six minutes of regulation, as many as they forced in the first 34 minutes, as they outscored James Madison 21-10 and held the Dukes without a shot in the final 3:43. Yves Jules, who played four minutes, made his only statistical contribution count by stealing the ball in the paint in the final seconds to force overtime. When McLendon, a freshman, hit two free throws with 17 seconds left, it marked the first time the Dutchmen had not trailed since the 7:21 mark of the first half.
Jenkins scored the Dutchmen’s first six points (and the last of his 35 points to go along with five assists, three blocks, three rebounds, two steals and one turnover) of overtime and the Dutchmen led 90-83 before surviving a furious Madison rally. The final points of the game were scored by freshman Stephan Nwaukoni, a 55 percent free throw shooter who missed the previous two games for disciplinary reasons who calmly drained two free throws with three seconds to play.
“It’s an incredibly resilient group and that goes from top to bottom,” Cassara said. “Our staff is the same way. We believe we can win every game and we’re not going to give our guys any excuse to not think that. And we found a way tonight late to fight and hang in there, hang in there, hang in there and then all of a sudden a couple shots fall and then our defense picks up a little bit.”
And with no Greg Washington (who had the game of his life with 13 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks in a career-high 42 minutes before he fouled out with 53 seconds left in overtime) to fend off Bowles, it was up to Jenkins to wrest the ball away from Bowles following the intentional miss of a free throw by Julius Wells with two seconds left and hang on to it until the buzzer finally sounded.
“It’s just our will to win that we have,” Jenkins said. “[At the] beginning of the season, something that me and Greg said [was] ‘We have every excuse not to be successful. We had all the odds against us. We have our first-year coach. We lost all these players and we had all this stuff happen in the offseason.
“I think our ability to just let everything go and just go play basketball is starting to show.”
So, too, is the bond between the team that had no choice but to continue keeping the faith and the fans who chose to do so. What happened Monday was rare—players and fans realizing, simultaneously, that something special is happening and feeding off each other’s energy. Everyone and everything was in sync. Never has “Don’t Stop Believing”—which began playing immediately after the regulation buzzer—sounded so good, or so appropriate, in the last week of January.
Once the victory was complete, Jenkins leaped into the student section with the rest of his teammates pouring on to the court behind him. “I wanted to embrace them—if my arms were big enough, I could give them all [hugs],” he said.
I’ve been to a lot of games at Hofstra, but I don’t remember a communal experience like Monday. Sure, sold out home games against George Mason, Nebraska and Old Dominion in 2006 were unforgettable and electric, but there was a certain temporary feeling to those games, as if whatever was going on was not sustainable, that many of those in attendance were just there because Hofstra basketball was momentarily hot.
Hey, maybe I’m being too optimistic here. If there was a Mo Cassara Fan Club, I’d not only be a member, I’d be the president, vice president, secretary, treasurer, ombudsman and head maintenance professional. But this feels different—as if Cassara is not only building a program but has also found the secret to building a fanbase that eluded Tom Pecora and Jay Wright.
“I’ll tell you what, this was a good crowd in here tonight,” Cassara said. “The thing now is anybody who came tonight saw a great, exciting game. They’re going to come back and they’re going to want to come back. I think the George Mason and James Madison games at home, people are going to be excited to come back here.
“It just helps with the excitement here in the arena, it helps with the overall excitement for the program. I’m happy for the university, I’m happy for the president, I’m happy for Jack [Hayes] and Danny [McCabe] and everybody involved. It’s been a long offseason and the offseason’s over now and we’re moving forward and it’s really an exciting time. I’m happy for everybody.”
It wasn’t easy to get to this point, but it never is. Whoo hoo.