Monday, February 13, 2012

Drexel 78, Hofstra 67 (Or: Who would have thought they’d end up this way, getting so close, so far away)

Philadelphia's finest musical export summed up the 2011-12 Flying Dutchmen way back during my senior year of high school, when me and Nathaniel Lester formed a dynamic duo in pickup basketball!

Mike Moore did a fine job of spelling out the absurdity of a double-digit loss to Georgia State nine days ago, when the Panthers routed the Flying Dutchmen even tough the Dutchmen had as many assists and steals, two fewer rebounds and seven fewer turnovers than the victors.

Even in this ridiculous Dutchmen season, that seemed to be bottom, at least in terms of head-scratching losses that simply don’t add up on paper. But as usual, we were wrong. Very, very wrong.

The Dutchmen managed to never lead in a 78-67 loss to Drexel at the cozy DAC in Philadelphia Saturday even though they forced 11 more turnovers (18) than they committed (seven). It was just the sixth time since joining the CAA that Hofstra has had a turnover ratio of plus-10 and the first time the Dutchmen have lost such a game. Their average margin of victory in the first five such instances: 15 points.

“If I could cover the numbers up and say, hey, we got 19 offensive rebounds and only turned it over seven times and they turned it over 18 times, I’d probably sit here and tell you we probably would have won the game,” Cassara said.

So how did THIS—so close, so far away—happen again? Well, for one thing, the Dutchmen had so many offensive rebounds because they missed 43 of their 64 shots. And while Moore, Nathaniel Lester, Stephen Nwaukoni and Shemiye McLendon combined to shoot a respectable 20-of-46 from the field, the rest of the team was a gasp-worthy 1-of-18.

“Our issue just continues to be we weren’t able to make enough baskets to win,” Cassara said. “We had a lot of great opportunities around the basket tonight and we weren’t able to execute.”

Drexel, on the other hand, executed. Over and over and over again. The Dragons shot a blistering 59.6 percent, the highest a CAA opponent has ever shot against the Dutchmen, per EvanJ at the CAA Zone. Drexel’s three double-digit scorers—Chris Fouch, Frantz Massenat and Damian Lee—were a silly 22-of-29 from the field. Fouch lived up to his “F-Bomb” nickname by hitting three free throws less than three minutes into the second half to start the Dragons’ decisive 25-8 run and by draining his first six 3-point attempts of the second half.

Only these Dutchmen—who have as many non-conference wins over opponents in the top 100 as they do CAA wins—could produce such diametrically opposite historic efforts in the same game.

“I told the team: It’s a mental mistake every game,” Cassara said. “It’s a little mental breakdown. And I think that just comes from fatigue and just comes from we don’t have enough mental toughness to say ‘Hey, I’m not going to foul a jump shooter’ [or] ‘Hey, I’m not going to go underneath the screen’ or ‘Hey, I’m going to cut a little harder on offense.’ And part of that, to me, is from fatigue.”

Yet despite the almost uninterrupted spate of losing and an undermanned roster (which got even lighter when David Imes sat out the second half with a groin injury that has him very questionable at best for this week), the Dutchmen continued to exhibit an admirable amount of hustle and effort. They forced a seemingly unprecedented seven held balls in the first half, during which they fell behind by 10 less than six minutes in yet closed the gap to two at the under-4 timeout.

The Dutchmen opened the second half by outscoring the Dragons 10-4 to pull within two points—and missed two chances to tie the game a bit more than two minutes into the half—and went on a 20-9 run to pull within eight points at the final media timeout.

“I thought our effort and our intensity was really, really solid,” Cassara said. “Proud of our guys. We continue to play hard. We just haven’t been able to make enough winning plays to beat a team like Drexel, especially down here at Drexel.”

Nobody played harder than Lester, who continued to produce a sensational finish to what was already a very solid senior season by scoring a game-high 27 points—including 22 in the second half—to go along with a team-high eight rebounds, including seven on the offensive end. Effort has never been an issue for Lester, but he is embodying the senior playing with more passion than ever in February, putting teammates on his back and doing all he can to will a flawed team to extend his career just a little bit longer.

“Nat plays hard—he plays hard,” Cassara said. “He plays hard and he’s given us all he’s got. He continues to play really hard and give us a lot of energy.”

There were some other notable individual efforts by Dutchmen, many of which were alternately—and appropriately—impressive and cringe-worthy. The best overall performance, other than Lester, came from Nwaukoni, who was 4-of-6 from the field in scoring eight points for the second straight game. The Dutchmen will need him to continue finding his early January form with Imes banged up.

Dwan McMillan fashioned a magnificent assist-to-turnover ratio of 6:1, but was 0-for-4 from the field. Moore had 18 points and became only the second player in school history to score 1,000 points in two seasons after transferring to Hofstra, but lapsed into inconsistency and sat for almost five minutes during Drexel’s big second half run.

And Stevie Mejia had five steals, and nearly had a couple more that he couldn’t quite corral, but was 0-for-8 from the field three days after he was 5-of-11 against George Mason.

“Wayne Morgan said to me walking down the tunnel at halftime ‘That’s the guy that you told me could really guard the ball that we’ve been waiting to see,’” Cassara said. “He’s starting to come along. That’s a positive note. Got to keep trying to build on the positives. We’ve got three of our next four games at home.”

There aren’t too many of those on the scoreboard or in the standings—the last time the Dutchmen were 2-13 in conference play, the 13th loss was a season-ender in the 1988 East Coast Conference tournament—and even the schedule that once seemed to lighten up in mid-February has turned difficult.

Delaware, which started this Dutchmen funk with a one-point win in New-ARK Jan. 4, visits Wednesday in the midst of a four-game winning streak that has made the Blue Hens the hottest team outside of the top four. Then there’s the too-meaningless-for-words “Bracket Buster” against Siena Saturday, followed by a trip to William & Mary—which scorched Northeastern Saturday to break a 10th-place tie with the Dutchmen—and the Senior Day finale against UNC Wilmington.

But Cassara will work as hard leading into games as the Dutchmen work during them, hoping to fix whatever ails the Dutchmen and get to the point where luck finally turns their way, the shots start falling, the math finally works in their favor and so close is no longer so far away.

“I’ve been on some teams that [didn’t] have winning records and some of those teams didn’t play hard this time of year,” Cassara said. “That team out there played hard today. We played hard. We just aren’t able to make enough winning plays to win a game like that on the road yet. So we have to keep trying to look at some of the things that [are] prohibiting us from doing that and stay positive. We head home for three of our next four and we’re going to go back to practice [Sunday] and try to get better Sunday and Monday and play Delaware on Tuesday.”

3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. Drexel, 2/11)
3: Nathaniel Lester
2: Stephen Nwaukoni
1: Mike Moore

Mike Moore 56
Nathaniel Lester 41
Dwan McMillan 17
David Imes 14
Stephen Nwaukoni 10
Stevie Mejia 9
Shemiye McLendon 9
Moussa Kone 3
Bryant Crowder 2
Matt Grogan 1

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