The rap here is as awful as the win over Iona was awesome.
The rap here is as awful as the win over Iona was awesome.
Iona players had waited 31 days for Thursday night and the opportunity to play in front of their friends and family. But the Flying Dutchmen had waited a lot longer—a full 365 days—just to play the Gaels and get a measure of revenge for the worst loss of the Mo Cassara Era.
And the differences in focus were obvious throughout. From the spirited demeanor of the Hofstra bench to David Imes (16 points, 15 rebounds) and Nathaniel Lester (21 points, 10 rebounds) putting together double-doubles in perhaps the best efforts of their careers to Cassara pumping his fist after a Moussa Kone dunk sealed the game with less than a minute to play and the sight of usually placid Lester firing the ball skyward as time expired, the Dutchmen were the better and more attentive team in putting together a stunningly thorough 83-75 win in front of a spirited crowd of 4,258 at Hofstra Arena.
“Sheesh, I can’t even tell you,” Imes said when asked how satisfied he was by the victory a year to the day after the Dutchmen were destroyed by Iona, 87-62, in New Rochelle. “I just know that everyday, when we found out they were on our schedule, we just waited until this day to take advantage of it and just make up for [last year],” Imes said.
“A year ago tonight was a tough night,” Cassara said. “But it was a big turning point for us. I think from that point on we played very, very well throughout the rest of the season. So obviously a big turning point for us this year, as well.”
Don’t be surprised if it turns out to be one for Iona, too. Judging by Tim Cluess’ demeanor late Thursday, I wouldn’t want to be Siena on Tuesday night. Anyway, here’s the postgame buffet from the Dutchmen’s third straight win.
1.) Afterward, everyone on both sides recognized that while the Flying Dutchmen viewed this as their Super Bowl—Dwan McMillan’s words—Iona viewed it like Homecoming, and figured they’d treat the Dutchmen like the Dutchmen football team treated Charleston Southern back in 1995 (you probably had to be there).
“I’ll keep it simple: Just give Hofstra all the credit,” Cluess said. “I thought they came and played a heckuva game from the get-go. They came with more energy, they played harder than us and took it to us right from the start. It looked like it meant more to them than it did to our guys today.”
Cluess said he was growing concerned that his team, which went 6-2 on the eight-game road trip it completed Thursday, was beginning to buy into its hype as the best team in the metro area when he noticed players were talking more about ticket requests. “I think our guys were drinking the Kool Aid a little too much,” Cluess said. “I knew we were in a little bit of trouble when it became more of an issue for some of the guys about tickets for the game than about the game itself.”
Cluess also admitted he didn’t expect Imes and Lester to shoot as well as they did, which is understandable given their struggles much of this season (more on that shortly). But Iona star forward Mike Glover unintentionally provided a glimpse into how the Gaels approached the game when he needed help remembering Imes’ name and assumed he’d never before enjoyed such a robust rebounding game.
“I think it was—who was it? Dave? Dave Imes had, what, 15 rebounds in the game?” Glover said. “Shocked me. I didn’t think he ever had 15 rebounds in a game against anybody.”
Imes had 17 rebounds twice last season (against Wagner and UNC Wilmington) and Thursday marked his seventh career double-double. Those numbers aren’t Glover-esque—he has six double-doubles this year alone—but still, they’re pretty good.
“Pretty much proved today that he can rebound just as good as any other big man in the country,” Glover said.
2.) This was the type of win Cassara would like to bottle and uncork another 27 times this year (do the math!). Not only did the Dutchmen bring the type of effort and emotion he’d like to see every game, but this was a win in which the veterans all played their optimal game.
Imes entered Thursday with just 12 points and 20 rebounds in his previous four games, during which he was just 5-of-24 from the field. But he was 7-of-13 shooting against Iona and had as many offensive boards (six) as the previous four games combined.
“It’s a big confidence booster,” Imes said. “I needed that.”
Lester’s impressive shooting night was less surprising—he is 15-of-35 in his last five games following a five-game stretch in which he was just 13-of-58—but the Gaels weren’t the only ones stunned by Lester’s huge and consecutive 3-pointers midway through the second half. The first came with 10:07 left to play immediately after a Hofstra timeout and just after Iona had closed within single digits for the first time in the second half. The second 96 seconds later again extended the lead to 12.
Not only were those Lester’s first 3-pointers in 26 days, they were his first after a streak of nine straight misses dating back to the James Madison game and half as many 3-pointers as he had in his first 25 attempts of the season. They were also, quite likely, his biggest baskets since his freshman year way back in 1907-08—err, 2007-08—when he hit a series of clutch last-minute shots.
Mike Moore, meanwhile, opened the game by hitting just one of his first six shots but hit drained seven of his final nine attempts on his way to a game-high 24 points. Most notably, he had five assists, tying a Hofstra career high, and continued to display renewed determination on defense, where he had three steals and got a piece of Kyle Smyth’s 3-pointer late in the second half.
“It was easy for me tonight because my other guys were picking me up,” Moore said. “We had the lead from the beginning so I wasn’t really stressing about missing shots. They were good shots. I know I can make those shots and my teammates believe in me, so I just kept shooting and making the right pass.”
After the Dutchmen took their biggest lead at 57-38 with 14:33 left to play, Moore, Lester and Imes combined to score 20 of the Dutchmen’s final 26 points as they fended off Iona’s comeback and finished off the win.
“A lot of credit to Mike he was a little tired at the end and he dropped the ball off to Dave, he dropped the ball off to Nat and those guys stepped up and made big shots,” Cassara said. “And that’s what we need them to do. If you look at their stat lines, it’s terrific, but I’m really just proud of our effort overall. And that’s the way we’re going to have to win. To win games we’re going to have to do it as a group.”
3.) While Moore, Lester and Imes combined for 61 points on 52 percent shooting, the most pivotal player for the Dutchmen—and the one who inspired me to go with the FOUR stars of the game for the first time ever, SPOILER ALERT—was just 3-of-11 shooting and didn’t pull down a rebound. But without Dwan McMillan’s efforts on and off the court, the Dutchmen do not win this game.
McMillan continued his masterful play at point guard with 10 points, nine assists and just four turnovers over 40 minutes (he missed a handful of seconds before a media timeout in the second half). His 19 assists the last two games are the most by a Hofstra player in a two-game span since Charles Jenkins had 22 on Feb. 18 and 21, 2009.
McMillan continually—and seemingly effortlessly—broke the Iona press while igniting the Dutchmen’s own press defense. McMillan harassed ex-high school teammate Scott Machado into six of Iona’s 23 turnovers, the most by a Hofstra opponent since UNC Wilmington needed three overtimes to commit 24 turnovers on Jan. 14, 2006. And the Dutchmen recorded 14 steals, the second straight game in which they had their most steals in six seasons.
He also set the tone for the Dutchmen last week by declaring he was ready for Iona. “I thought Dwan was great,” Cassara said. “I gave him a lot of credit in the locker room. His attitude and effort in practice, in shoot-around today—he just kept saying ‘We’re not gonna lose, we’re not gonna lose tonight’—has been tremendous.”
“I told the guys during practice ‘this is a must-win, we’ve got to be up for this team,’” McMillan said. “Some of the losses that we had, we got up—it wasn’t 15, but we got up six or seven and we didn’t finish the game—so we finished this game.”
4.) Perhaps the most impressive part of the win is the Dutchmen played Iona’s game and paid zero attention to my pre-game prattlings about how the only way to beat Iona was by slowing things down. The Gaels had 84 possessions, their fourth-most this season, but averaged a season-low 0.89 points per possession. The Dutchmen set a season high with 83 possessions.
“We talk about playing to tempo,” Cassara said. “We were able to get some really easy baskets in transition and the staff kept saying if we get something in transition, let’s attack and let’s get an easy basket or let’s get fouled. If we don’t, then pull out and run some offense. I think down the stretch we did a really good job of that.”
5.) Following the game, I screamed on Twitter that I was writing in Cassara for President. Maybe it’s a smidge early for that, but not too early to declare he can, as Bum Phillips said about Bear Bryant, “…take his’n and beat your’n and take your’n and beat his’n.”
This is the second year in a row in which Cassara has navigated the Dutchmen through an early season crisis and put them back on course, but this time he didn’t have Jenkins to rely upon. It is absolutely remarkable that the Dutchmen, in a span of a little more than three weeks, went from trailing for 76-plus straight minutes against Wagner and Manhattan to never trailing Iona by more than two points and leading the Gaels for the final 28 minutes.
Part of the resurgence was the good fortune of playing winless Binghamton and game but overmatched Colgate in consecutive home games, but Cassara deserves a ton of credit for putting the Bryant Crowder distraction behind the Dutchmen and getting the group he’ll take forward refocused and re-energized after a demoralizing four-game losing streak. The Dutchmen also have an identity and a vocal team leader, two things they lacked during the skid, and Cassara and his staff deserve plenty of plaudits for coaxing those traits out of a reeling team.
“I think anytime when you’re going through a stretch, a period, where you’re not playing real well, you’re trying to push and pull and find anything that can work,” Cassara said. “We’ve been trying to push some different buttons and do some different things [and] really get a better sense of ourselves. Our energy and our effort and our excitement in practice has been tremendous and I think that showed tonight on the court. I’m really proud of our guys.”
And now the Dutchmen head into the new year feeling pretty good about themselves and knowing they not only beat the two best teams they faced during the non-conference season—and may have recorded the CAA’s two biggest non-conference wins—but that they did it with two drastically different squads. Feeling good on New Year’s Eve doesn’t guarantee anything, and the best team in the CAA awaits Monday, but the Dutchmen are in a far better spot than anyone could have envisioned two weeks ago.
“On paper, probably the two best teams that we’ve played all year are Cleveland State and Iona—RPI-wise, personnel-wise—and we’ve beaten both of those teams,” Cassara said. “So we certainly have the capability and the ability to be very competitive not only in the non-conference but in our league.”