Sunday, November 27, 2011

Postgame Buffet: Hofstra 63, Cleveland State 53 (Or: We’re never gonna survive unless we get a little crazy)

Clues! Clues! So many clues! (C'mon people join Loyal Readers Missy and Matt in playing the "What do the subtitles mean?" game!)

Mo Cassara emerged from another sleepless night well before dawn Saturday morning, still unsure how he was going to figure out a way for the Flying Dutchmen to knock off a Cleveland State team that was not only unbeaten but atop the early season RPI and on the verge of cracking the two top 25 polls.

And had someone sat next to Cassara and told him, as Cleveland State game film flickered in an otherwise dark hotel room (OK, this is a little bit of writer’s liberty, I don’t know if Cassara watched the film with the lights off, work with me people), that the Dutchmen would not only beat the Vikings but would do so on a day in which their three most experienced players—Nathaniel Lester, Mike Moore and David Imes—combined for just 21 points on 5-of-20 shooting, what would have the coach said to THAT?

“I’d say ‘You are the craziest man in the world,’” Cassara said.

And yet, crazy won Saturday, when the Dutchmen arguably recorded the biggest victory of the Cassara era by upsetting Cleveland State, 63-53, in a Ticket City Legends Classic subregional game at Rhode Island. The Dutchmen did it thanks to a suffocating defensive performance that included dominance on the boards (a 39-19 edge that was the Dutchmen’s biggest since Feb. 6, 2010 against Northeastern) and a balanced scoring attack that featured four players in double figures, including a trio of players who entered the game with five double-digit scoring efforts in a Hofstra uniform. Combined.

Just as Cassara drew it up.

“I tell you what I was up drinking coffee about 5 this morning watching Cleveland State-BU on my iPad [and he thought] ‘I don’t think we can beat these guys—they’re too talented, they’re too veteran, too well-coached,’” Cassara said by phone last night. “I just didn’t think it was a game where we could win at this point in the season. We found a way and obviously I’m very pleased.”

Here’s the postgame buffet on a deeply satisfying win:

1.) Stephen Nwaukoni reminded us all he really likes Thanksgiving weekend, and not a moment too soon. Less than 24 hours after he played just two minutes against Rhode Island and seemingly got passed on the depth chart by Bryant Crowder, Nwaukoni had his best game in a Hofstra uniform by scoring a career-high 12 points (tied for the team high with Dwan McMillan) on a perfect 5-for-5 shooting and pulling down a game-high nine rebounds in a mere 21 minutes. The effort came a year to the day of Nwaukoni’s previous appearance in the 3 Stars Of The Game (SPOILER ALERT), when he had his lone career double-double against Wagner.

Nwaukoni entered the game with seven points and nine rebounds in 35 minutes ALL YEAR, and in the waning moments of the game Cassara realized how important a Nwaukoni-sparked win would be for not only the sophomore but the entire team.

“I leaned over to Wayne Morgan with about five minutes to go and I said ‘I really hope we win this game,’” Cassara said. “He looked at me like I was crazy and said ‘So do I.’ I said ‘I just want to win this game, because if we do win, the way Stephen played, it will be a great definition of teamwork for this group.’ Because there’s a kid who hasn’t played, but he didn’t complain, he didn’t get down. He kept coming to work, kept practicing, kept trying. His minutes kept going down and down and when he got a shot, he seized it.

“We talked about that with our team: Everybody’s got to be ready because it could be your day today. And when you say all those things to guys and then they work out that way, it really helps your camaraderie and teamwork. That locker room—everybody was so pumped up for him today. Those kind of things help a team develop and we got a little piece of that tonight.”

2.) Nwaukoni wasn’t the only reserve to enjoy an impressive afternoon. McMillan had five assists to go along with his 12 points, which were his most ever against a Division I opponent. And Bryant Crowder looked good again with eight points on 4-of-6 shooting as well as seven rebounds. The trio scored 20 of the Dutchmen’s final 26 points, including all seven in a 7-0 run just before the under-12 media timeout that allowed Hofstra to overcome its final deficit of the game.

Nwaukoni, McMillan and Crowder combined to shoot 11-of-14 from the field and scored 32 points, the most by Hofstra reserves against a Division I opponent since March 6, 2009 (when reserves scored 37 points against UNC Wilmington) and the first time the reserves accounted for more than half the Flying Dutchmen’s points since subs scored 30 points in a 78-54 rout at the hands of George Mason (grrr) Feb. 3, 2009.

Nwaukoni and Crowder also combined for just shy of half of the Dutchmen’s 33 individual rebounds and six of their 11 individual offensive rebounds. The Dutchmen limited Cleveland State to just seven offensive rebounds and had as many offensive rebounds (12) as the Vikings had defensive boards. Cleveland State had just seven second chance points and four fast break points.

All this in an afternoon in which fellow reserve Shemiye McLendon—who was one of the Dutchmen’s best players during the first four games—went scoreless on an 0-for-1 performance for the second straight game.

“I think we’ve got a really, really potentially very deep, strong bench,” Cassara said. “You’ve got a little bit of everything with Dwan and Stephen and Shemiye and Bryant. Have some speed, some scoring, some size, some athleticism and obviously each one of these pieces has helped us throughout the last couple weeks.”

3.) As for the starters: While Lester and Stevie Mejia each scored 10 points and combined for the Dutchmen’s first eight points of the second half (including six by Mejia) to help withstand an early 13-8 “run” by Cleveland State that allowed the Vikings to take their biggest lead of the game at 42-37, Cassara was most pleased with what Moore did—and didn’t do—in scoring five points (his second-lowest figure with Hofstra and the first time in 18 games he didn’t reach double figures) while getting the Charles Jenkins treatment from the Vikings.

Cassara has been trying to encourage Moore—who is known for hoisting wild shots when he gets frustrated and/or is trying too hard to make something happen—into filling more of a leadership role, and he played in control throughout a 2-of-7 effort from the field. Moore made those two shots count with a jumper to give the Dutchmen the lead for good at 46-44 and a basket that started a 6-0 run that extended the lead to 57-46. And both of his second half rebounds led to points for the Dutchmen.

“Cleveland State was face guarding Mike tonight and just said ‘Let somebody else beat you,’” Cassara said. “And Mike was frustrated with it for a while. But he just said ‘The only way we win this game is to let some other guys do it’ and he took that upon himself and took one for the team. For him to get five points and that be enough for us to win is a credit to Mike as much as everybody else.

“Mike really developed as a leader throughout the second half. He just made sure everybody else got shots and rebounded and did everything he could to help us win.”

4.) In both producing and closing out the win, Cassara and the Dutchmen learned from two of the most painful losses of last season. Having faced Cleveland State’s Horizon League rival Wright State in the gruesome 82-56 loss in the Bracket Buster, Cassara knew the Vikings would not only try to suffocate Moore but also force the Dutchmen into plenty of bad shots. The Dutchmen maximized their shots on Saturday, when they had their fewest field goal attempts (41) since taking 40 shots in a win over Maine way back on Jan. 21, 2001, and were content to head to the line against a physical Cleveland State squad that “out-fouled” Hofstra 29-14. (Yet I managed to mutter about biases after every one of those 14!)

“I saw this last year when we went out to Wright State—they hold and grab and are a very, very physical team, so a lot of fouls,” Cassara said. “And we just weren’t able to run a lot of our offense. Part of that’s the way they like to play the game. They’re very successful at what they do. They make it hard.”

And yes, Cassara was thinking what you were thinking when Cleveland State held the Dutchmen scoreless for three minutes just before the final media timeout—and limited them to a single shot—while closing the gap to seven points: Oh no, not Western Kentucky again.

But this time, instead of blowing the late lead and squandering an opportunity to wash away a double-digit loss with an impressive win in the middle game of a three-game tournament, the Dutchmen held on by playing keepaway from Cleveland State. Thanks to three offensive rebounds, the Dutchmen had the ball for a remarkable 100 straight seconds after the Vikings missed a 3-pointer coming out of the timeout. Cleveland State ended up scoring just one basket in the final 3:18—a 3-pointer with five seconds left.

“At the four-minute time out, the game was starting to get a little tight,” Cassara said. “I slammed my clipboard on the ground a couple times and said ‘Everybody look at me.’ I screamed a couple times ‘We are gonna win this game. We are gonna win this game. And here’s how we’re gonna do it.’”

5.) Beating Cleveland State resulted in a reset of the weekend’s expectations. Cassara would have taken a 1-2 trip, all the while presuming the “1” would come today against Boston University. But 1-2 would be a lot less satisfying now that the Dutchmen have a chance to end the weekend and the month with a winning record.

And as well as the Dutchmen played Saturday, Cassara knows it was far from a perfect effort and that the Dutchmen still need to take better care of the basketball (they had 17 turnovers for the second straight game and are averaging 14.5 turnovers per game) and get David Imes (who has eight points and eight rebounds this weekend after averaging 8.8 points and 6.5 rebounds in the first four games) untracked. Boston will be entering with plenty of momentum, too, after recording its first win of the season by ending Rhode Island’s 31-game non-conference home winning streak in Saturday’s nightcap.

“We have to put this behind us much like we did the loss to Rhode Island,” Cassara said just before going to watch Boston on film. “It’s a real challenge for us. We still have some inexperience on our team and some new guys and we have to turn around very quickly. It’ll be a tough game and it’s an early morning—we’re leaving here at 9:45—so it’s quick turnaround.”

3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. Rhode Island, 11/25)
3: Stephen Nwaukoni
2: Dwan McMillan
1: Bryant Crowder

Mike Moore 11
Nathaniel Lester 8
Dwan McMillan 4
Shemiye McLendon 4
Stephen Nwaukoni 3
David Imes 3
Bryant Crowder 2
Stevie Mejia 1

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

no stars for mcmillan??? he was the best player on the court