I thought I’d seen it all in 18 years of watching Hofstra basketball. Conference championships—some of which were even won in leagues that actually existed!—eight-point plays, stunning comeback wins, buzzer-beaters by iconic future NBA players.
Of course, rooting for the Flying Dutchmen means plenty of lows—that’s to be expected as a mid-major fan. But still, we’ve been through a lot, from wondering if we’d ever get into a real conference (cough, hi Litos, cough cough), pondering the what ifs about a narrow loss in the conference tournament, the heartbreak that defined what should have been a euphoric 2006 postseason, a month-long period in 2010 in which the Dutchmen had as many coaches as they had the previous 22 years and all the blown leads and last-minute losses that still stick in our craw all these years later.
But even by our star-crossed standards, last night’s 67-66 loss to Delaware was utterly freaking brutal. I’m sadistic enough to try and find out if a team has ever lost a one-point game in which it never led, so I’m glad there doesn’t seem to be a way to conduct this research.
However, I’m absolutely positive that if a team has ever done what the Dutchmen did last night, it didn’t do it like the Dutchmen, who fell behind by 15 points barely six minutes in yet clawed back to tie the game four times in the final 5:14 but squandered three chances to take the lead—the last time when Mike Moore, an 80 percent foul shooter, missed both free throws with 22 seconds left and the game tied 65-65—and lost when Shemiye McLendon missed the potential game-tying free throw with two seconds left.
It sucked. It really, really sucked. What could have been a seismic, season-defining victory that served as a testament to the toughness and resiliency of the Flying Dutchmen instead turned into a crushing defeat that could linger as long as the James Madison defeat, which was the second loss in a four-game skid.
Regardless of how the Dutchmen bounce back at UNC Wilmington Saturday, they are now mired in a hole from which it is almost impossible to emerge (more on that in a bit). Really, it couldn’t have been any worse if the Blue Hens beat the Flying Dutchmen back up the New Jersey Turnpike, broke into the Hofstra Arena and stole the 2000 and 2001 America East championship banners.
Yet because I’m a sadist, and so are you, I’m going to write a lot about it, and you’re going to read it in the postgame buffet. Which this time is being authored by someone who DIDN’T stay in a craptastic Howard Johnson’s and catch the stomach flu there. So yay. I’ve got that going for me.
1.) In ways symbolic and literal, the Flying Dutchmen are paying the price for Charles Jenkins’ greatness the last three seasons. Buoyed by Jenkins’ ability to shift into Wolf/Takeover/Beast mode in the final minutes, the Dutchmen were 27-9, with three losses per year, in games decided by six points or less or in overtime in his final three campaigns.
They are 1-3 in such games this year. The easy thing is to say the fates have evened out, but fate has a funny way of evening out once Jenkins is on the west coast. The Dutchmen have not found someone to replicate Jenkins’ ability to put the team on his back and will it to victory.
There are players displaying the potential to fill that role. Moore had two game-tying jumpers and scored 24 points despite being shut out for the first 13-plus minutes. Lester finished with a double-double (15 points and 11 rebounds) and put together another big second half in which he scored 11 points. Stephen Nwaukoni had a career-high 12 rebounds, including seven in the second half and three offensive boards in one sequence.
Between the opening tip against Colgate and halftime Wednesday, David Imes was 17-of-27 from the field. McLendon has scored in double figures in three of his last four games and has a penchant for late-game dramatics: Wednesday marked the first time in four tries he’s missed a free throw that could tie or put the Dutchmen ahead in the final two minutes.
But no one has pulled a Jenkins yet and made the difference between defeat and victory. As the leading scorer in the CAA, Moore is the player most qualified to assume Jenkins’ role, and he just cannot—cannot—miss two free throws with the chance to give the Dutchmen the lead for the first time in the final half-minute of play.
Especially when he’s such a reliable free throw shooter: The back-to-back misses marked just the third time Moore has missed both ends of a free throw sequence in 48 games at Hofstra. He’s missed fewer than two free throws in a game 35 times. To lose when Moore had the chance to complete the comeback at the free throw line might be the most demoralizing part of the defeat.
2.) Last-minute free throw shooting potentially costing the Dutchmen a comeback win is the most easily lamentable part of the defeat, but a sloppy first half—and in particular a rough first few minutes—was the real culprit and the reason the Dutchmen had to spend the entire game playing catch-up.
The Dutchmen committed six turnovers in the first were down 19-4 a mere 6:13 into the game. It was just about the polar opposite of what Dwan McMillan promised after the loss to VCU, and McMillan and the other veterans in the starting lineup have to do a better job of making sure the undermanned and undersized Dutchmen—who have little margin for error in the best of times—don’t put themselves in such predicaments.
The Dutchmen also need more consistency out of the veterans. Lester, who has reached double figures in scoring in each of the last seven games, needs to be a bigger part of the offense in the first half. Moore needed 25 shots for his 24 points last night. Imes missed six of his last seven shots last night. And McMillan is just 2-for-10 from the field with seven assists and eight turnovers in the last two games.
3.) The resiliency of the Dutchmen and the ability of Mo Cassara and his staff to make halftime adjustments remains encouraging. While it’s reasonable to worry the Dutchmen will be feeling the after-effects of this loss for games to come, it speaks volumes for their character that they were able to keep chipping away at Delaware’s lead and trade flurries with the Blue Hens in the second half, even if they never got the tie-breaking basket that probably would have led to victory. The Dutchmen also committed just four turnovers in the final 34 minutes.
And Cassara continues to mix and match and find ways to bring the Dutchmen back into games. The three-quarters press defense worked wonders in the second half, when the Dutchmen caused eight turnovers, and while Blue Hens power forward Jamelle Hagins put up an eye-popping 21 points and 18 rebounds, he was limited to six shots in the second half. Effort—from players or coaches—will rarely be an issue for the Dutchmen which is just one reason why…
4.) …losses like last night really sting. This is a team for whom you wish success. Of course, as the curator of a mildly biased Hofstra blog, I always feel that way. But this team, in particular, is easy to root for. It will be remembered as a transition-era bunch, which is a nice way of saying the core players were stuck here when Tom Pecora left and the Cassara-recruited role players are just holding down the fort until he builds the program back up.
You want a team like this to have some success so that its one run together doesn’t go down as an eyesore in the media guide. While we’d all obviously like to see this season end with an NCAA Tournament game or seven, it would be satisfying—not to mention far more realistic—to see the Dutchmen finish a game or two above .500, make a little run in the CAA Tournament and perhaps accept a berth to the CIT (but, dear God, not That Which We Shall Not Name).
But history suggests that’s just about impossible now. The Dutchmen and Towson are the 19th and 20th teams to open CAA play 0-3 since the CAA expanded in 2001-02. Of the previous 18, only one finished .500 in conference play and won more than one game in the CAA Tournament. And that was George Mason, which bounced back from an 0-3 start to finish in sixth place at 9-9 and advance to the championship game in 2006-07. And as you know, the Patriots had some players who had played pretty deep into the season the year before (grrrr).
Even with Mason’s turnaround boosting the numbers, the average finish for a team that starts 0-3 is far from good—10th place (well, technically 9.78th) with exactly four conference wins. Other than Mason, no 0-3 team has ever won more than one CAA Tournament game.
To put the average finish for an 0-3 team into context: Hofstra won five games in its worst CAA season back in 2001-02. And the Flying Dutchmen haven’t won fewer than five conference games (discounting the five-game ECC season of 1993-94) since 1987-88, when it went 2-12 in the ECC (no, really, Litos, I swear!). That squad is just one of three Hofstra teams to open conference play 0-3 or worse in the last 30 years. The other was the 1995-96 team, which finished 5-13 and lost in the first round of the NAC Tournament in Delaware (oh my God it all connects!). So…yeah. It’s a long climb back.
5.) There will almost surely be more nights like last night, and also more nights like last Thursday against Iona in which the Dutchmen win a game in which nobody thought they had a shot. It’s that kind of season in the CAA—why hello there, first-place Georgia State—and one in which an 0-3 start doesn’t have to be as ruinous as perhaps it would have been in past seasons. The basketball season is full of ebbs and flows, and the Dutchmen could be feeling really good about themselves a week from today if they can head to UNC Wilmington Saturday, beat the Seahawks and return home and beat Northeastern on Wednesday.
But shedding last night’s loss, heading to North Carolina tomorrow and earning a road win is a lot to ask, especially now that UNC Wilmington just beat Northeastern in Boston for the first time ever and has won four in a row and six of eight. Scratching out two wins in the next six days is a lot to ask, yet the alternative—with the Dutchmen following up the home game against Northeastern with games against Old Dominion, Drexel, James Madison, VCU, George Mason and Northeastern again—is too dreadful to consider.
3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. Delaware, 1/4)
3: Nathaniel Lester
2: Mike Moore
1: Stephen Nwaukoni
Mike Moore 33
Nathaniel Lester 18
Dwan McMillan 13
Shemiye McLendon 9
David Imes 8
Stephen Nwaukoni 4
Stevie Mejia 3
Bryant Crowder 2