Monday, January 23, 2012

Hofstra 71, James Madison 69 (Or: Happy Happy Joy Joy)

I'll teach your grandmother to suck eggs!

Mo Cassara had tried just about everything to coax a win out of the Flying Dutchmen and end the longest streak of bad luck in college basketball this season. He yelled and he provided verbal pats on the back. He worked the Dutchmen hard in practice and he eased up. He expressed frustration at press conferences and he expressed optimism. He implored the Dutchmen to channel the 2004 Red Sox and the 2011 New York Giants.

Turns out all he had to do was ditch his sport coat.

With his coach displaying an ultra-rare look on the sideline, Stevie Mejia drove the lane and converted the winning 3-point play with just over six seconds to go before he provided the suffocating defense at midcourt that clinched the Flying Dutchmen’s 71-69 win over James Madison. The win, the Dutchmen’s first CAA win in 321 days (but who’s counting?), finally ended the second-worst conference start in Hofstra history, a stretch in which the Dutchmen lost seven games by a mere 42 points.

“It’s like the weight has been lifted,” Cassara said from Richmond Saturday night. “It was a big-time winning play. We’ve been talking about how we’ve got to make more winning plays and we had a bunch tonight. Fortunately we were able to make enough down the stretch to win the game in a hostile environment.”

When Cassara flung off the coat, though, it looked like the Dutchmen were destined to suffer yet another gut-wrenching loss. Cassara, a superstitious sort in all facets of life but particularly when it comes to his game day attire, is the anti-Shaka Smart when it comes to his suit jacket: It stays on. Always.

Yet he ditched it in fury with 1:16 left Saturday, right after James Madison took its first lead in almost 16 minutes on a dunk by Enoch Hood. Cassara was already furious over what happened about 90 seconds earlier, when, with the Dutchmen nursing a four-point lead, Dwan McMillan fouled out on the second worst charge call of the week. Actually, this one might have been even worse, since McMillan was at half court when it happened.

(Note: It wasn’t worse than Dennis Allocco’s travesty)

Humpty Hitchens (HIM AGAIN) drained a 3-pointer on the Dukes’ subsequent trip to pull James Madison within 62-61 and even Cassara was thinking the Dutchmen—who were up by nine points in the first half and by eight points earlier in the second half—were doomed. He was so furious he took off the coat because the sleeves were restraining him and “…I couldn’t swing my arms fast enough.”

The Dutchmen were in the midst of one of their best games of the year and were winning even though Mike Moore (10 points on 3-of-10 shooting) was bottled up. And they were finally getting contributions from everyone: Dutchmen reserves scored just seven points in the previous two games but Mejia, Shemiye McLendon and Moussa Kone ended up with 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting.

And yet it was happening again. “I was just so frustrated,” Cassara said. “It was like a Twilight Zone. Playing our butts off and then we just can’t get a break.”

But unlike the previous seven losses, the Dutchmen made their own breaks down the stretch and finally got a couple things to go their way. David Imes, who scored a team-high 11 points in the first half, pulled down two rebounds, one on each end of the floor, following the Hitchens 3-pointer and hit three of four free throws—his only points of the second half—to give the Dutchmen a four-point lead again.

Imes’ defensive rebound came when after the Dukes missed two shots in the paint, including a thunderous dunk by Hood. It was Imes who had one of the Dutchmen’s two missed dunks against Northeastern in a 64-62 loss and Imes who accidentally tipped in a missed Drexel free throw in the 60-54 loss to the Dragons Wednesday.

Then A.J. Davis’ 3-point play and Hood’s dunk finally put the Dukes ahead, Nathaniel Lester—who had another huge second half and scored 17 of his 23 points after intermission—drained a 3-pointer to give the Dutchmen the 68-66 lead.

“I’ve got to credit coach [Pat] Sellers,” Cassara said. “We went through a little rut in the second half, they were just doing so much to take away Mike [Moore]. And [Sellers said] ‘Gotta go to Nat, Nat’s hot, he’s got a good shot, we’ve got to keep going to him.” We called his number a bunch of different times and he hit some big shots.”

But Lester ended up needing Mejia to save him from misery. Lester stole the ball on James Madison’s next trip and, after a timeout, missed a layup with 23 seconds left. Hood slammed home a dunk on the other end, was fouled by Mejia and hit the free throw to put the Dukes up 69-68.

“When Nat misses that layup at the end of the game and they get a 3-point play, they go up, I was like ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’” Cassara said.

The Dutchmen didn’t have a timeout, but Mejia—who was the third option on the play behind Moore and Lester—got the ball from a heavily covered Moore, drove the lane, hit the layup and was fouled by Hitchens. Mejia, who had hit just 11 of 25 free throws, drained the free throw and then pressured Devon Moore into losing the ball at half-court. Despite contact being made, no foul was called, and the Dukes didn’t get a shot off before the buzzer.

It was a cathartic layup for Mejia, who has struggled badly and lost his starting job to McMillan since suffering a hamstring injury against Boston University Nov. 27. Mejia’s three field goals Saturday marked the first time he had multiple baskets in a game since Nov. 26—the day the Dutchmen stunned Cleveland State.

During a chat in his office last week, Cassara implored Mejia to focus less on what has gone wrong this year and more on the next year-and-a-half. “I’m just so happy for Stevie Mejia, he has been such a shell of himself,” Cassara said. “Stevie and I had this long heart to heart the other day. He’s starting to get healthy—maybe 75 to 80 percent—and mentally he wasn’t. He’s just so frustrated. He’s wanted to do so well and hasn’t been able to.

“I said to him ‘Listen: We’re not talking about Rhode Island anymore or this injury anymore. What we’re going to do is make this a successful year-and-a-half for you, on and off the court.

“Later on he texted me and [said] ‘Thank you. I feel so much better.’ He played that way today. Just so happy for him.”

And after ending the losing streak, Cassara found out that plenty of people were rooting for him, as well. “My phone just blew up—texts from people around the league, ADs, coaches,” Cassara said. “People knew how close we were. It wasn’t like you’re a bad team and you can’t win. It was like, hey, this is a pretty good team, just haven’t been able to catch a break.

“So I really appreciate that. I think that’s a sign that this is not a bad team. Just a team that has been, between injuries and various other things and some tough luck, hasn’t been where it would like to be.”

3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. James Madison, 1/21)
3: Nathaniel Lester
2: Stevie Mejia
1: David Imes

Mike Moore 41
Nathaniel Lester 27
Dwan McMillan 17
David Imes 9
Shemiye McLendon 9
Stephen Nwaukoni 8
Stevie Mejia 5
Moussa Kone 2
Bryant Crowder 2

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