Thursday, December 22, 2011

Hofstra 82, Binghamton 62 (Or: Sure feels good to me)

Pretty sure I'm the only basketball blogger with two Warrant references in the calendar year 2011. What can I say, I have my niche and I try to fill it well.

When it comes to cathartic, losing streak-snapping victories, the Flying Dutchmen’s 82-62 rout of Binghamton Saturday doesn’t quite rank up there with the annihilation of UNC Wilmington Jan. 27, 2010. A CAA win is a CAA win, even when it comes at the expense of a team as overmatched as UNC Wilmington was two Januaries ago, and that victory—which snapped a five-game conference losing streak and a stretch of nine losses in 11 games—was the basketball equivalent of a five-course, soup-to-nuts meal.

The Dutchmen weren’t nearly as ruthlessly effective in ending a four-game losing streak Saturday, but they didn’t have to be against a winless Binghamton team that is paying for the sins of its forefathers and is on the very short list for the worst in Division I this season. In food terms, this was a binge at the drive-thru in which we wolfed the food down in the car and may or may not have belched loudly afterward.

Still, a win’s a win, and this one felt good, and even if it wasn’t exactly fine dining, it was one on which the Flying Dutchmen could build. People walked out of Hofstra Arena with smiles on their faces for the first time in four weeks. The wife and I argued all the way home over whether or not Matt Grogan merited 3 Stars Of The Game consideration (no spoilers!). Mo Cassara slept for the first time since the Saturday after Thanksgiving. OK, well, maybe not.

“Obviously pleased with the outcome tonight,” Cassara said. “I think sometimes, when you’re not winning and the ball’s not going in the basket, it’s easy to get down, it’s easy to question a lot of things. And I think a lot of credit has to go to our staff. Sometimes you work a lot harder when you’re losing than you do when you’re winning. And we’ve worked real hard the last couple of weeks, even though we haven’t had some of the wins we wanted to have.”

Here’s a postgame buffet I’m not even calling a postgame buffet because it’s so damn late. Can’t wait for the holiday break.

1.) Whenever the Flying Dutchmen struggled under Tom Pecora, he’d always say the seniors needed to take ownership of the situation. So it was a good sign that the lone seniors on this year’s team—Mike Moore, Dwan McMillan and Nathaniel Lester—combined to score 57 points and were the three Dutchmen to score in double figures.

Moore was brilliant in scoring a career-high 32 points, tying a school record with seven 3-pointers and chipping in a team-high seven rebounds. That effort earned him co-player of the week honors in the CAA. McMillan had perhaps his best game in a Hofstra uniform with 15 points—his most ever against a Division I opponent—on 5-of-6 shooting. And Lester had 10 points and five rebounds and has 21 points (on 7-of-15 shooting) and 13 rebounds in his last two games.

“[Moore is] doing a lot of things for us,” Cassara said. “If he can continue to play complete games on both ends scoring, passing, rebounding along with Nat, along with Dwan—and they each have their own roles—if we can do that and start to play 40 minutes of that, we’re going to get some Ws.”

2.) For Moore and McMillan, in particular, their performance on the court was not nearly as important as what they did off it. Moore said afterward he called a players-only meeting after the Manhattan loss in which he implored everyone to play hard for 40 minutes.

“We just challenged each other—what can we do better?” Moore said.

McMillan, meanwhile, jumped into the center of the huddle after introductions and took over the Charles Jenkins role as the player shouting last-second encouragement. As transfers in only their second year in the program, neither Moore nor McMillan can be expected to lead quite like Jenkins, who was a three-year captain as well as the best player in school history. But the Dutchmen need leaders, and there’s no better candidates to assume the responsibility than their best player and their most emotional one.

“It’s great—it’s all part of their development,” Cassara said.

3.) Playing Binghamton has a way of curing a lot of ailments, but there’s no denying the week off between games did wonders for the Dutchmen’s psyche, as did the calendar allowing the opportunity for a fresh start. In between taking exams, the Dutchmen held a series of extended practices in which Cassara emphasized gradual improvement with the beginning of the real season finally on the horizon.

“It’s a challenging week, but I think having that week off was very valuable,” Cassara said. “We walked into practice Monday and said ‘We are going to commit to getting a little better every day. We are going to be enthusiastic and energetic about getting a little bit better everyday. If we do that, winning will take care of itself. And we all committed to that and I think we made a step in the right direction today.”

4.) While the senior starters had impressive games, the Dutchmen also got nice contributions from subs Grogan (six points on two 3-pointers), Shemiye McLendon (eight points, five assists—tying his career high—and two steals), Stephen Nwaukoni (seven points and two rebounds) and Moussa Kone, who hit both of his field goal attempts and pulled down four rebounds in his first appearance off the bench this year.

The bench is not yet the strength it appeared to be during Bryant Crowder’s cameo in Rhode Island, but now that Stevie Mejia is back, at least the Dutchmen have some depth again. And while Mejia, who took Kone’s spot in his return from a hamstring injury that cost him three-plus games, was scoreless and missed all four shots, his presence in the lineup along with McMillan provided a glimpse of what the Dutchmen might be able to do with a smaller lineup against lightning-fast teams such as Iona and VCU…whom the Dutchmen just happen to play in the two games following tonight’s tilt with Colgate.

“A lot of sleepless nights this week,” Cassara said in reference to the lineup change. “I didn’t want to tinker too much with what we’re doing, but at the same time, I just wanted to give us a little bit of a quicker, maybe smaller lineup with a little bit more defensive intensity. It certainly wasn’t anything against Moussa, he’s done a great job for us through the early part of the year as a true freshman. Just a little coach’s thoughts, nothing too much other than that.”

5.) There was still plenty to improve upon from Saturday. Most notably, David Imes continued his baffling slump by going scoreless for the second straight game. He has two points in his last three games, and none in the Dutchmen’s last five halves of action. Getting Imes untracked in the next two games is surely at the top of Cassara’s to-do list.

The Dutchmen committed 19 turnovers and got a bit sloppy against an opponent whom they could afford to get sloppy against. And the Dutchmen let Binghamton hand around, sort of: The Dutchmen led by a game-high 24 midway through the second half but surrendered a 15-5 run that allowed the Bearcats to close within 14 with just under four minutes to play.

“I think today was a step in the right direction,” Cassara said. “We still have some things to work on. We have to learn to execute a little better, take care of the ball a little bit better down the stretch. I think it was real important to at least get a little confidence towards that mission for us really moving forward.”

3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. Binghamton, 12/17)
3: Mike Moore
2: Dwan McMillan
1: Shemiye McLendon

Mike Moore 24
Nathaniel Lester 12
Dwan McMillan 10
Shemiye McLendon 6
David Imes 6
Stevie Mejia 3
Stephen Nwaukoni 3
Bryant Crowder 2

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