Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Drexel 65, Hofstra 60 (Or: Cold shower)

You know this is serious stuff when there's no Hall & Oates video following a Drexel game! But hey, Kix is from Baltimore and Baltimore is close to Philadelphia, so I think I'm clear.

I spent the better part of two days trying to come up with the proper, G-rated synonym for what I’m about to write. I felt particular pressure to do so after I read your good friend and mine Mike Litos—whom I respect as much as anybody I’ve ever met in this business—write Monday how he takes pride (no pun intended, have you noticed he’s started referring to Hofstra as the Dutchmen? YOU DA MAN MIKE!!) in how he doesn’t “…deviate into bathroom humor.”

I tend to think that what I’m about to write isn’t really bathroom humor, because you’re not going to find it in the dirty jokes book that has been on the back of the toilet in your aunt’s house since you were in fourth grade. But then again, it did give me pause, so maybe it is.

Anyway. Sometimes the hard PG-13 way (though not as hard a PG-13 as, say, Swimfan—seriously, how did that not get an R?) is just the most succinct way to describe what happened. And I think anyone who was at the Arena for perhaps the most hotly awaited game since the 2006 NIT run would agree:

The Flying Dutchmen’s 65-60 loss to Drexel Saturday was the basketball version of a cold shower.

The building was buzzing with anticipation an hour before tipoff. By 3:30, the signs went up on the doors to the Arena: THIS GAME IS SOLD OUT. A legitimate capacity crowd of 5,050 filled the Arena, the first sellout in almost four years, to watch Charles Jenkins break the school record for career points and see Speedy Claxton—Jenkins’ predecessor as the best player anyone under the age of 50 has ever seen at Hofstra—honored at halftime following his induction earlier in the afternoon into the Hofstra Athletics Hall of Fame.

Jenkins, Mo Cassara and the rest of the team and the staff spent much of Friday in the Student Center, handing out free tickets and chatting up fans who very well may have had no idea we played basketball until Jenkins went viral. And whether it was the free tickets, or the lure of the snazzy and free Jenkins T-shirts, or the chance to see history, or some combination thereof, more than 1,000 students showed up.

And who knows how many hundreds or thousands of the others in attendance showed up to see what all the hype and hoopla was about and to catch a glimpse of this suddenly red-hot team, one that mounted one of the greatest comebacks in program history five nights earlier to remain at the forefront of the CAA race?

It was an incredibly rare afternoon and opportunity for the program to hasten the process of building a fan base—a process that, it should be noted, is moving along far faster than anyone could have anticipated nine months ago. We couldn’t lose. Jenkins would get the record, and show everyone who foolishly hadn’t seen him play what they’d been missing by delivering a Wolf-like performance, and the Dutchmen would win. Maybe people would storm the court, and we’d be so happy that we wouldn’t even bother to note how foolish that would be, and those fans would walk out of the Arena looking for pocket schedules so they could plan their next trip to see this unforgettable player and team.

And after 38 minutes of inconsistent basketball by the Dutchmen, the payoff was within reach. Jenkins had already broken Antoine Agudio’s record by draining two free throws with 10:15 left in the game, which earned him an incredible ovation. The Dutchmen trailed from the 13:45 mark of the first half on and were down by nine with four minutes to play, but a Brad Kelleher 3-pointer began a furious rally that pulled the Dutchmen within one and with a chance to take the lead in the final minute.

Sound familiar? This was going to be just like Monday, except 10 times better. Except it wasn’t.

Drexel did what James Madison couldn’t do—get that one basket it so desperately needed to slow the Dutchmen momentum just a bit—and survived an ill-advised turnover when Jenkins turned the ball over trying to pass it to Greg Washington underneath the basket for the go-ahead hoop with 39 seconds left. The Dragons hit four free throws in the final 27 seconds—a pretty impressive feat for a team that entered Saturday shooting just under 61 percent for the year—that served as bookends to Mike Moore’s errant potential game-tying 3-pointer with 12 seconds left.

We got all revved up and then we left with our clothes still on. Figuratively speaking, of course.

Athletic department members were crestfallen—not with the effort or performance of the Dutchmen, but the missed opportunity. Long Islanders have famously short memories when it comes to the sports that aren’t “major,” and how many of the 5,050 left the Arena going “OK, saw that this year, what’s going on next weekend?” Sorry, that’s just the attitude around here.

People might see Jenkins with just five second half points and wonder what the big deal is. They probably won’t look at a boxscore that nobody else in the country, at any level, can equal (19 points, eight assists, five rebounds, one block, one steal) and won’t want to hear about the suffocating defense that limited him to just five second half shots (the second straight game he took five or fewer second half shots) and left him trying to find the ice-cold Washington (0-for-6 shooting) in the final minute. They won’t know how authentically disinterested he was in setting a record on an afternoon in which the Dutchmen lost.

“If I had 14 points and we won, I’d be the happiest kid in the gym,” a sullen Jenkins said. “The team’s most important. When I’m gone, when I leave Hofstra and I come back in, this record will mean a lot to me. But right now we’ve just got to work on winning.

“Statistically, I’ve done everything that I could possibly do. I just need to get wins.”

They’ll see the Dutchmen got 48 points from three players (Moore had a game-high 20 points while David Imes added nine on 4-of-6 shooting) and see the eye-popping rebounding gap (Drexel had a 47-24 edge on the boards and pulled down 27 defensive rebounds to just five offensive rebounds for the Dutchmen) and figure this 8-3 CAA start is a fluke. They probably won’t be able to be convinced that as lean, undersized and inexperienced as the Dutchmen are, nobody gets to 8-3 in the CAA on a fluke.

Cassara, of course, is an eternal optimist, and while he was disappointed with the loss, he remained upbeat about the benefits of playing in such a charged atmosphere. “We didn’t play our best basketball, but I’ll tell you what, it’s a credit to these guys, to this administration, to everybody here—that place to see all the fans today, to see the place the way it was and the support for Charles and Mike and all these players, I think that’s got to give us a little bit of confidence,” Cassara said. “What an unreal atmosphere there today.”

He probably knows, though, that Saturday was an even bigger microcosm of what he’s trying to build and overcome than Monday. While the Dutchmen are legit, they’re also a thin team that has a correspondingly slender margin for error. If just one thing goes wrong—if Imes or Washington combine for 10 rebounds, instead of one or both pulling down 10 rebounds individually, or if Kelleher and Shemiye McLendon combine for one 3-pointer and the Dutchmen shoot 4-of-17 from beyond the arc, or if the Dutchmen are a step slower against a team fighting to save its season—then they’ll have a tough time winning.

The same thing applies to building a fan base. Everything has to go right to keep everyone interested and on board. That didn’t happen Saturday, and it comes as little consolation that it wasn’t for lack of effort or that Hofstra isn’t the only program in the metro area delicately trying to find a foothold in the area sporting conscience. Fordham and our old friend Tom Pecora lost in front of a rare sellout crowd, too, earlier Saturday afternoon. And while St. John’s routed Duke (YAY AMERICA!!!) at Madison Square Garden Sunday, the Red Storm lost a heartbreaker to Cincinnati eight days earlier in front of the first sellout crowd at Carnesecca Arena in almost two years.

“I think this is going to sting no matter what,” Cassara said. “You know me: I’m not going to sleep tonight. I’m going to go over it again and again in my head and try to think of something that I could have done better. And the players will too.

“But we’ve been in that spot so many times before and I think that’s why we had a little bit of confidence. We got down seven or eight with a few minutes to go, but we knew we had a chance. We just had to make a couple shots and we ultimately got back in the game. But we weren’t able to make that one extra play tonight.”

It’s a common, completely understandable and excusable lament. But damn. One extra play—how many people appreciate the sliver-sized difference between carnal elation and familiar frustration? My guess is we’ll know when we see the attendance figures this Saturday afternoon.

3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. Drexel, 1/29)
3: Charles Jenkins
2: Mike Moore
1: David Imes

Charles Jenkins 56
Mike Moore 26
Greg Washington 21
David Imes 15
Dwan McMillan 5
Shemiye McLendon 4
Brad Kelleher 3
Yves Jules 1
Stephen Nwaukoni 1

Email Jerry at defiantlydutch@yahoo.com or follow Defiantly Dutch at http://twitter.com/defiantlydutch.

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