Sunday, November 13, 2011

Postgame Buffet: Hofstra 89, Long Island 71 (Or: They’re pretty good with first impressions)

Wha--Indiana's own John Mellencamp featured in a blog that has nothing to do with an Indiana-based school? It has something to do with a general theme of this year's game recap subtitles. Intrigued? Or have I lost my mind? Or both? It's late. Read my blog damnit.

Mo Cassara declared early in his postgame press conference Friday night that the Flying Dutchmen finished the game in sloppy fashion, but the final seconds of the stunningly dominant 89-71 victory over Long Island University provided a perfect bit of symbolism for an evening that turned out far better than anyone’s best-case scenario.

With the shot clock off, the Blackbirds’ Arnold Mayorga missed a 3-pointer and teammate Robinson Odoch Opong grabbed the rebound. The ball eventually ended up in the hands of Kurt Joseph, whose layup was blocked by Stephen Nwaukoni. Arnold Mayorga corralled the loose ball and tried passing it as time expired.

The Dutchmen toyed with the defending Northeast Conference champions during a blistering second half and were threatening to post the program’s most dominant non-conference win over a Division I opponent in 28 years until the Blackbirds’ game-ending 12-5 run. There’s 39 games to go (counting the three CAA Tournament games and six NCAA Tournament games), but…wow.

“About as good as I could imagine,” Cassara said.

Here’s the first postgame buffet of the season—the first one that counts, anyway!

1.) Charles Jenkins was sitting in section 101, but the best player in the building Friday night was Nathaniel Lester, the fifth-year senior who returned from a redshirt campaign but putting on a performance that defied description and raised the hair on the arms of the 3,589 in attendance. Lester, playing his first game in 604 days, gave the Dutchmen the lead for good by scoring all their points in an 11-5 run midway through the first half, scored 17 points in the first half—a total he’d matched or exceeded just 10 times in his first 96 games in a Hofstra uniform—and finished with a career-high 33 points. That shattered his previous best of 22 points, which he recorded in 48 minutes in the double-overtime classic win over James Madison Feb. 18, 2009 a mere 995 days earlier. Lester was the first player not named Charles Jenkins to score at least 30 points in a game for the Dutchmen since Antoine Agudio scored 36 against—warning! irony that’s not really irony alert!—Fordham on Dec. 5, 2007.

We’ll have much more on Lester in tomorrow’s The Day After, but any discussion of the season-opening win begins with him. If Lester plays like this—and looks like someone who was touted by many as the best New York City recruit in the class of 2007—then the Dutchmen are going to surprise even the most optimistic of observers (hi there!).

“I’m really proud of Nat,” Cassara said of Lester, who also had five rebounds and two steals. “There’s certainly not a more deserving guy than Nat Lester [for] the time he’s put into not only this program but this university. I’m just so happy for him.”

2.) Mike Moore gave the Dutchmen a potent 1-2 punch by channeling Jenkins and making up for a quiet first half by playing almost perfect basketball in the second half. Moore was 6-of-6 from the field—including 3-of-3 from 3-point land—and 6-for-10 from the line in scoring 21 points in the final 20 minutes. He single-handedly sparked the Dutchmen’s decisive second half surge by scoring all eight of Hofstra’s points in an 8-1 run that lasted just 74 seconds. Moore finished with 23 points, a total he exceeded just twice last season.

“Charles used to do that last year,” Moore said, referring to the second half outburst. “[In the] offseason I talked to Charles a lot. I’m going to have to step up this year. He told me if it’s not going well in the first half, just stay positive, be a good teammate. Guys patted me on the back in the locker room [and told him it’s) going to be a better [second] half.”

“We need Mike and Nat to really continue to be tough matchups,” Cassara said. “If they can continue to score like that, I think we’re going to continue to improve.”

3.) It will be tough for the Dutchmen to play much better than they did in the second half, when they scored 57 points—the most points a Hofstra team has scored in a half since the Dutchmen put up 57 against Hartford in the quarterfinals of the NAC, err, America East Tournament on Feb. 28, 1998—and shot a blistering 15-of-21 from the field (71.4 percent) and 23-of-32 from the line (71.9 percent). After averaging a mediocre 0.86 points per possession in the first half (32 points on 37 possessions), the Dutchmen scored a remarkable 1.43 points per possession in the second half (57 points on 40 possessions). The Dutchmen scored on 26 of their final 31 possessions and had TWO runs in which they scored on nine straight possessions.

Pretty impressive, especially considering the Dutchmen opened the half by scoring on just three of their first nine possessions and endured a stretch of 11 straight scoreless possessions late in the first half. You wouldn’t believe it by looking at the final score, but the score was tied and Long Island had a chance to take the lead less than two minutes into the second half (C.J. Garner missed two free throws).

“I think we loosened up a little bit at halftime,” Cassara said. “I told everybody relax a little bit, we’re OK. Trust in what we do, believe in what we do. It’s going to start clicking. I told the team I’m really proud of the way they came out of the locker room at halftime.”

4.) The second half run is even more notable considering it happened after the Dutchmen fell into foul trouble. Moussa Kone picked up three fouls in the first 3:14, by which point Lester, Moore, Nwaukoni and David Imes were all playing with two fouls apiece. Yet the Dutchmen remained aggressive on both ends of the floor, thanks in large part to the smaller lineup Cassara fielded—or, as he might call it: I’ve finally got two point guards and I’m going to use them.

The Dutchmen had two point guards for a grand total of three games last year before Dwan McMillan suffered a season-ending eye injury that forced a rusty Brad Kelleher into the lineup full-time. McMillan saw more time at the point than starter Stevie Mejia, who looked a bit rusty in his first game since sitting out last year following his transfer from Rhode Island, and was on the court in place of Mejia as the Dutchmen began pulling away around the midpoint of the second half. McMillan finished with 10 assists, only the fourth time since Carlos Rivera graduated in 2007 that a Hofstra player has reached double digits in assists.

But the rout really began once Mejia joined McMillan on the court for the first time at the 8:14 mark. Over the next 5:26, the Dutchmen outscored Long Island 21-11 to expand their lead to 85-61.

“I thought our defensive intensity from about the 15-minute mark to the 8- or 10-minute mark was terrific,” Cassara said. “We were able to play a smaller lineup for a little while, and as you can tell those guys can really get after the ball. They created some problems for those guys, got a little frustrated [and] missed a couple shots. One thing we do have is pretty good team speed. Off the long rebound we can get the ball to the other end of the court pretty fast, and once we got some confidence and got a couple layups, [it] really opened the game up.”

5.) Contrary to what the preceding 1,250 words might have you believe, it wasn’t a perfect night for the Dutchmen. There was that long drought spanning the two halves that kept the Dutchmen from scoring 250 points (or so). The Dutchmen committed 18 turnovers and shot just 67.6 percent (23-of-34) from the free throw line. And the foul trouble among the bigs once again made Imes (10 points and seven rebounds) the lone presence in the middle for the Dutchmen. Promising center Bryant Crowder was in sweats on the bench due to a coach’s decision, and the Dutchmen will almost surely need him Wednesday against an Oregon State team that features nine players 6-foot-7 or taller.

But still. It was a pretty damn good night, especially for a program trying to build and sustain a fanbase. As assistant AD Tim McMahon noted as he sipped on a celebratory can of root beer—something he will repeat after all 17 home wins, see what I did there?—anyone who showed up for the first time Friday is going to want to come back, including, most certainly, the students who packed the Lions Den.

“One thing about this team is we have a bunch of guys who just haven’t played together a lot,” Cassara said. “[You] see bits and flashes of them starting to get comfortable with each other. Overall I’m pleased with our effort against a very good team and really excited about the crowd and atmosphere and everything we had tonight.”

3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. Long Island, 11/11)
3: Nathaniel Lester
2: Mike Moore
1: Dwan McMillan

Nathaniel Lester 3
Mike Moore 2
Dwan McMillan 1

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