Call it cheesy if you must but tell me this doesn't sum things up.
So here’s where the story ends. The Flying Dutchmen endured an itinerary straight out of a John Hughes film (thanks to Loyal Reader Missy for that analogy), all to lose to a .500 team in a Division II gymnasium in the central time zone in something called a CBI (seriously, and I mean it this time, if I ever—EVER—stump for a CBI bid again, give me the Tony Skinn treatment).
It ends not with drama or excitement for the Dutchmen or another YouTube moment for Charles Jenkins, but with Jenkins capping the finest career in school history with just 14 points—a total he exceeded 31 times in his first 32 games this year and in 93 of his first 127 games at Hofstra—as the Dutchmen fell to Evansville, 77-70, in the first round of the Can’t Believe I thought it was a good idea for Hofstra to play in this tournament (yes, I’m going to the well again with that one).
It ends with fellow seniors Greg Washington and Brad Kelleher concluding their careers with desperate, meaningless 3-point attempts in the waning seconds. It ends with Mike Moore authoring the biggest last-minute head-scratcher by a Dutchmen since Greg Johnson drove for two against George Mason with Hofstra down three. A season defined by frantic, inspired comebacks ends with the Dutchmen closing within a possession of Evansville eight times in the final 10-plus minutes yet losing a game they led at halftime for just the second time all year.
Nobody ever said life was fair, or that endings were just or anything other than abrupt and unsatisfying. But geez, didn’t we ALL deserve something a little better than this after one of the most exciting seasons in Defiantly Dutch history, one that got our hearts thumping and our imaginations racing and inspired all of us to believe this would be the winter of our impossible dream?
“Tough night,” Mo Cassara said by phone afterward. “It’s a tough ending. It’s a tough way to end after such a great year. You can lose sight of that a little bit because we’re out here in southern Indiana and you feel almost lost a little bit right now from what’s gotten us here.”
Whether it was the uninspiring setting, the travel or just a team that finally ran out of gas, the Dutchmen drifted off course (get it?) and played an unfamiliar game at the most inconvenient time. Jenkins had as many field goals as assists (six), took just 12 shots (only the ninth time this year he shot 12 or fewer times) and, amazingly, went to the free throw line just once, which means he had one free throw attempt combined in his final two games in a Hofstra uniform.
The Dutchmen don’t blow multi-possession leads in the second half, but they squandered leads of seven points and six points in the first six minutes of the second half and never led in the final 11:37. The Dutchmen, who—groan—pride themselves on taking care of the ball and set a CAA Tournament record with just two turnovers in a quarterfinal win over William & Mary, turned it over 14 times, their highest total since the loss to Western Kentucky. Not coincidentally, that was also the first time this season the Dutchmen lost a game in which they led at halftime. Kelleher, who had 45 assists and eight turnovers in his previous 11 games, had three assists and four turnovers.
“We had a couple chances to get control of the game, we just couldn’t,” Cassara said. “A lot of credit to [Evansville], they implemented their game plan. Very similar to Wright State, they held and grabbed and kept the ball out of Charles’ hands and we couldn’t get into any flow for the game. Had a couple opportunities to try and separate ourselves a little bit early in the second half and we just couldn’t do it.”
David Imes, who averaged 8.7 points and 9.3 rebounds in 35 minutes over his final seven games, had just five points and six boards in 17 minutes, only the third time this year he played less than 20 minutes. Early foul trouble for Imes and Washington (who scored the Dutchmen’s first seven points and nine of their first 12 points overall but didn’t score again until an old-fashioned 3-point play with 26 seconds left completed the scoring for Hofstra) forced little-used Stephen Nwaukoni into extended action for the second straight game and he pulled down eight rebounds in the first half before sitting the final 13:45 with four fouls.
Jenkins and Moore scored 12 of the Dutchmen’s first 13 points in the second half as the Dutchmen took those two big leads, but when Hofstra needed a 3-pointer later in the second half, it got it not from Jenkins, Kelleher or Moore but from Yves Jules, who had a season-high eight points and hit both his attempts to twice pull the Dutchmen within a possession.
Jenkins, Kelleher and Moore were a combined 3-of-11 from beyond the arc and Moore’s final miss turned out to be the final shovelful of dirt on the season. After a rare missed free throw by Evansville star Colt Ryan with 24 seconds left kept the Dutchmen within three points at 73-70, Moore raced down the court and attempted to create contact with a Purple Aces player as he fired up a long 3-pointer. He didn’t get the call and the ball didn’t even hit the rim and bounced out of bounds.
Evansville hit its final four free throw attempts to hand the Dutchmen—who displayed impressive resiliency all year in going 6-4 after a loss and 5-2 after double-digit defeats—just their third losing streak of the season. “We always found a way to come back,” Cassara said. “Unfortunately, we can’t come back out there and play. It’s just not the place we wanted to end our season.”
Most teams will utter some variation of that lament (of the 345 Division I teams, only four will walk off the court victorious in a postseason tournament), but the commonality is little consolation when seasons, impossible dreams and careers— whether they are as brilliant as the one produced by Jenkins, as workmanlike as Washington’s or as cruelly brief as Kelleher’s—come screeching to a halt.
“I had some time to thank each of them individually in the locker room,” Cassara said. “The three of them have given us everything they have. At some level, it’s a little bit of shock, a little bit of just ‘Wow it’s really over, we’re not going to get another chance to go out there and play.’ I think it’s going to take a little time for that to sink in, because we had so many games—a bunch of games—where we didn’t play well and those three guys brought us back and we got to practice and found a way to [win]. Ultimately, this was our last opportunity to do this as a team this year.”
The abrupt finality of Tuesday makes it difficult, at least initially, to remember how much Hofstra has to be proud (pun most certainly intended) of this season, how Cassara’s steady hand helped turn a campaign that surely seemed headed for disaster turned into something memorable and how he managed to coax 21 wins and the program’s best-ever CAA finish out of Jenkins and a roster that was the basketball version of a pot luck supper.
But the ending is also a reminder that the odds of achieving the ultimate goal—winning the conference tournament and the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament—will always be long, especially for certain northern schools in certain southern-based conferences, and that it’s important to revel in the moment even if it happens in November, December, January or February because there are no guarantees that the ultimate celebration will happen in March.
Someday soon, we will look back on the 2010-11 season with a smile on our faces, and as long as the Internet exists the reminders of Jenkins’ late-game exploits and ability to unite a famously apathetic Hofstra community—and how those talents symbolized the 1,220 days in between his atypically quiet first game (five points on 1-of-7 shooting against Holy Cross Nov. 10, 2007) and last game—will only be a click away.
But as of late last night, all Cassara could think about was the long road back from Indiana—one more long bus ride and one more plane to catch in a remote airport in a season full of interesting travel challenges—taking him into his first long off-season at Hofstra, and, like the rest of us, bemoaning how the first day of practice five months ago could feel so recent while the next first day of practice could feel so much further away than seven months away.
“I don’t think it’s really hit me yet—I’ve been pacing around here in my room,” Cassara said. “I don’t think any of us have had a chance to process what we’ve really done. Big picture, there’s so much to be proud of, and it’s amazing. I think the thing that we really have to be proud of is the excitement that this team has created on campus and in our basketball community and our Hofstra community. My phone won’t stop buzzing from Twitter and Facebook and people who generally are upset that it’s over, like we are.
“As a team, I don’t think it’s really hit us yet.”