Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Postgame Buffet: Florida Atlantic 62, Hofstra 60 (Or: Another Rainy Night Without A Win Over FAU)

It didn't actually rain during the FAU game last year. Writer's license, baby.

From the foul line and just as the buzzer sounded, Shemiye McLendon volleyball tapped the ball into the basket, more out of disgust than a frantic last-ditch attempt to send the game to overtime. Afterward, Mike Moore remained on the floor for close to a minute, clutching a head that hurt as much from the final result as the fall he had just absorbed.

Players and the announced crowd of 1,436 alike trotted out of the Hofstra Arena slowly, as if dazed by the late offensive surge by Florida Atlantic and the game-winning layup by Alex Tucker with 2.5 seconds left that lifted the CAA champion Owls to a 62-60 victory over the Flying Dutchmen Tuesday night.

A little while later, in the interview room, the bottles of water on the podium remained unopened and untouched. Those in the room who did take a swig found it decidedly unsatisfying.

“This water tastes terrible,” Hofstra assistant AD Tim McMahon said, morosely clutching the bottle of water instead of his third celebratory can of root beer of the season.

A little while later, in the car, my wife said “That one took everything out of me.”

A loss two days before Thanksgiving left everyone feeling a whole lot like we’ve felt on the first weekend of March the last 10 seasons. The Dutchmen squandered a nine-point second half lead and, thanks to another avert-your-gaze game offensively and an atypical defensive collapse in the final few minutes, an excellent opportunity to continue establishing themselves as a CAA sleeper as well as to build momentum for this weekend’s tournament in Rhode Island.

“That’s a game we really should have won,” Mo Cassara said. “That’s a game we should have won. We had a lot of careless turnovers, a lot of just lackadaisical play. And it’s something that we’ve got to get better at and we’ve got to continue to learn. I told the guys in the locker room we’ve got to find a way now to bounce back. We’ve got to find a way to learn from some of the things we didn’t do well.”

The more Cassara spoke, the less bleak things sounded. Well, sorta.

“That loss sucked,” I blurted out somewhere along Hempstead Turnpike.

It sure did, even If most of what ailed the Dutchmen Tuesday seems fixable. Here’s five reasons why Florida Atlantic’s second nail-biting win over the Dutchmen at Hofstra in the last 50 weeks stung a lot more than the first:

1.) In most narrow defeats, the initial instinct is to declare the losing team was one play away from winning. That’s not usually true. But it was Tuesday night. If just ONE more thing went the Dutchmen’s way, then everyone almost surely would have been smiling and cracking open those cans of root beer and bottles of water in the interview room.

If Moore didn’t begin his bizarre night (20 points on 5-of-11 shooting and 9-of-9 from the free throw line with seven rebounds, three assists and four turnovers in just 29 minutes) by missing a defensive assignment, allowing a 3-pointer to Raymond Taylor and getting yanked almost immediately by Cassara, maybe the Dutchmen win.

If Nathaniel Lester shoots 2-for-13, instead of 1-for-13, or David Imes shoots 2-for-6 instead of 1-for-6 or Dwan McMillan shoots 1-for-5 instead of 0-for-5, maybe the Dutchmen win. And if the Dutchmen make just ONE stop down the stretch—or McLendon gets his fingertips on the ball during the frantic scrum following Lester’s three-quarters court pass a split second earlier—maybe they at least force overtime.

“If we go back and look at a lot of the things we didn’t do well, they’re pretty correctible things,” Cassara said.

2.) The defense was certainly the most frustrating thing to go wrong. Florida Atlantic opened the second half by missing seven straight shots on its first five possessions, yet mounted a 13-0 run immediately after that to turn a nine-point deficit into a four-point lead.

Even with that surge, Florida Atlantic was just 8-of-23 from the field in its first 27 possessions. But the Owls not only finished the game by scoring baskets on their final six possessions over a span of 3:10, they did so on 6-of-6 shooting. The defensive breakdown was particularly galling since it happened a mere three days after the Dutchmen held off St. Francis by limiting the Terriers to two points on their final nine possessions.

“We got a little lackadaisical on defense—it wasn’t that we weren’t trying, it’s just that we didn’t execute,” Cassara said. “They executed better than we did and they got some wide-open shots and they made them count. Something that we clearly have got to do a better job of is finding a better way to defend down the stretch.”

3.) Cassara said Saturday the Dutchmen were not a very good offensive team, yet they managed to regress Tuesday. Lester’s 1-for-13 effort was the worst shooting performance by a Dutchman player with at least 10 attempts from the field since the program joined the CAA. Our Man Corny and Woody Souffrant each endured a 1-for-11 performance, but Vines was 1-for-9 from 3-point land against Charlotte Nov. 24, 2009 and Souffrant was 1-of-4 from beyond the arc against UNC Wilmington Jan. 4, 2003. Lester, whose only basket came on a tip-in, took just one 3-pointer.

Lester is 6-for-27 in his last two games after opening the season by going 15-of-23. Imes, meanwhile, is 3-for-12 and McMillan is 1-for-9 in the last two games. Still, it could be worse: In discussing the Dutchmen’s offensive execution, Cassara didn’t pull a John McKay and declare he was in favor of it (Google it, DC!).

“You look at some of the shooting lines of some of our guys and we just seem to not be able to make some easy shots around the basket,” Cassara said. “I’m not really quite sure what that is. Sometimes it’s physical, sometimes it’s mental. I think right now it’s a little mental for us. I think we’re just missing a lot of easy shots.

“We weren’t able to execute and that’s something we’ve really got to work on—our offensive execution.”

Said Moore: “I just think that we’ve just got to step up and make shots. We got some rebounds, but I think we’ve just got to step up and make shots. That’s the bottom line.”

4.) Despite the final result (and the preceding 1,000 words), plenty went right for the Dutchmen last night, which alternately made the loss a tougher one to absorb while providing some reason for optimism going forward.

The Dutchmen, who didn’t record their first offensive rebound Saturday until 33 minutes had elapsed, pulled down an eye-popping 20 offensive boards Tuesday, the most against a Division I team under Cassara (the Dutchmen had 21 offensive boards against Farmingdale in last year’s opener). Now, a team that is pulling down a lot of offensive rebounds is almost surely shooting poorly, and the Dutchmen were just 5-5 with four blowout losses the last 10 times they recorded at least 20 offensive rebounds in a game under Tom Pecora.

But the Dutchmen displayed impressive tenacity in recording at least two offensive rebounds on six possessions and converting those into points four times—including both times they pulled down three offensive rebounds in a possession.

Speaking of rebounding, Lester had a career-high 12 rebounds and has 21 in the last two games, his most ever over a two-game span. Imes finished with nine rebounds, six of which he pulled down during a second half in which he was ferocious on the glass. The raw Moussa Kone (four rebounds, two blocks) and Stephen Nwaukoni (an old-fashioned 3-point play and three rebounds) looked more fluid in trying to finish on offense.

Moore, Mejia and McLendon almost provided enough offense for the Dutchmen in going 15-of-30 from the field and combining for 48 points, including the final 18. Ice Ice Shemiye scored eight of his 12 points in the first half after coming in early for Moore and drained another clutch shot with a fallaway jumper that tied the game at 58 with 1:00 left.

Mejia had by far his best game on offense and channeled Loren Stokes and Jason Hernandez in scoring 14 points. More importantly, he displayed impressive leadership by taking responsibility, unprompted, for the late-game defensive lapses.

“I felt like those three last plays were kind of my fault,” Mejia said. “I feel like I’ve got to talk to my teammates more and do better communicating on defense. Those last three plays, I was involved in all three of them when they made the shot. So we’ve got to talk and we’ve got to do a better job.”

5.) The task now for Cassara is an unenviable one: Fix what went wrong last night while making sure this doesn’t fester going into this weekend’s three-games-in-44-hours stretch in the Ticket City Classic in Rhode Island against formidable foes Rhode Island, Cleveland State and Boston University. The hope is Tuesday night pays dividends—if not this weekend, then at some point this season.

“We’ve got three really challenging games this weekend,” Cassara said. “It’s going to be a physical challenge for us, but I think it’s going to be a real mental challenge for us. How do we bounce back? And how do we learn from this? That’s something we talk about a lot and it’s something that’s going to help us improve.”

3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. Florida Atlantic, 11/22)
3: Mike Moore
2: Shemiye McLendon
1: Stevie Mejia

Mike Moore 9
Nathaniel Lester 5
Shemiye McLendon 4
David Imes 3
Dwan McMillan 2
Stevie Mejia 1

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