Monday, February 20, 2012

Hofstra 81, Siena 69 (Or: Mejia gives Dutchmen reason to believe in a place called Hope)

Check out the cast of characters on stage at the end of this performance. Fever dream-esque.

Stevie Mejia wasn’t just reading from The Athlete’s Book Of Clichés when he declared he was just happy to be part of a win Saturday. He’d waited a long time for an afternoon like the one he and the Flying Dutchmen enjoyed when they pulled away late (no, really, I swear!) in a 81-69 win over Siena in the I-now-think-these-are-superduper-because-we-won-a-freaking-game Bracket Busters.

It was the first victory for the Dutchmen with Mejia in the starting lineup since Dec. 17 against Binghamton, when Mejia, still hampered by the hamstring injury that ended up costing him six games, was scoreless in a 82-62 win. For all intents and purposes, Saturday was the first win in which Mejia really contributed as a starter since Nov. 26—a mere 12 weeks earlier—against Cleveland State, when he had 10 points in what still stands as the Dutchmen’s most impressive win of the season.

“I feel great just having the win with my teammates, just feeling happy out there,” Mejia said. “It doesn’t matter what my stats are. I just want to win.”

A nice sentiment, but Mejia is wrong. His stats REALLY matter. Mejia didn’t produce the biggest numbers Saturday (Mike Moore had 30 points, including six 3-pointers), but he was the most valuable player on the floor for the Dutchmen.

Mejia set career highs—dating back to his days at Rhode Island—with 16 points, six field goals (on 11 attempts) and four 3-pointers (on seven attempts). All four treys gave the Dutchmen the lead, including the two he drained on consecutive trips just after the under-8 timeout in the second half, when he gave the Dutchmen the lead right after Siena took its last lead and broke a tie to give the Dutchmen the lead for good, respectively.

Mejia also had six assists and just one turnover—which he “committed” while dribbling out the clock with less than five seconds to go, no wonder Jim Larranaga never recruited him—while recording four steals, the second time in three games he’s had at least four steals.

In addition, Mejia made all three of his rebounds count: He grabbed his own miss and hit a jumper to spark a 12-2 run at the start of the second half and helped ice the game by pulling down Moore’s miss as the shot clock expired with 1:12 to play and outhustling Siena for a defensive rebound 18 seconds later.

It was no coincidence the Dutchmen had their best offensive day of 2012 with Mejia thriving. The 81 points were the Dutchmen’s most since they scored 83 against Iona Dec. 29. They shot 45.2 percent overall, ending a streak of eight straight games in which the Dutchmen shot 41 percent or less, and an impressive 47.8 percent from 3-point land, their finest performance since the Binghamton game.

“It’s amazing—[the ball] goes in the basket and all of a sudden we’re better on defense, we have a little more energy,” Mo Cassara said. “I think we got some different types of baskets—we got some transition baskets, we got some drives, we got some free throws, we got some extra passes and kickouts and some different guys made shots I think when different guys make some shots other than Mike or Nat, all of a sudden it gives everybody else a lot of confidence and they just can’t key on Mike or just can’t key on Nat.”

That third option suddenly looks like Mejia, who has more than half as many field goals in his last four games (15-of-40) as he did in his first 19 (29-of-82). That’s pretty impressive considering he was 0-for-8 against Drexel nine days ago. And Mejia has scored in double figures in three of his last four games, which is as many double-digit efforts as he had in his first 89 collegiate games.

“I’m just more confident now, back from injury,” Mejia said. “I feel like I’m 100 percent [since] two weeks ago [against] George Mason. After that game I’ve just been real confident.”

Mejia’s emergence is a huge factor for a team that hasn’t had a reliable outside shooter other than Moore. It took until Saturday—and a total of 52 games—for Mejia and Shemiye McLendon to finally exceed Brad Kelleher’s 34 3-pointers in just 25 games last season.

“That’s really what we’ve been looking for,” Cassara said, referring to a third scoring option. “If you go back through our season, it’s one or two shots in every game. A couple of those shots go in along the course of the year, probably a few different numbers up there. Tonight, that’s what gave us some confidence.”

Who knows it’s sustainable in CAA play, but fueled largely by Mejia, the Dutchmen produced a pretty good template for winning Saturday while also mounting their biggest comeback win of the season (Siena led 32-25 with three minutes left in the first half) and finally finishing a team off in the final few minutes.

Tri-captains Moore, Mejia and Nathaniel Lester (15 points) were the Dutchmen’s three double-digit scorers. The trio scored all 12 the Dutchmen’s points in a 12-2 run that opened the second half, and Moore buried the Saints in a four-possession stretch spanning the final media timeout with a jumper, a 3-pointer and two free throws off his own steal to spark a game-ending 12-2 run in which the Dutchmen scored the final 10 points.

“It usually comes down to the six, seven minute mark where we either lose the game or win the game,” Moore said. “Today a couple shots fell and guys stuck to it. We just fought along to win the game.”

Starters scored the Dutchmen’s first 66 points and 74 points overall, but one-time sixth man Shemiye McLendon provided seven big points in the final 5:44 as well as five assists. On an afternoon in which behemoth Siena forward O.D. Anosike—whom Cassara called the best big man Hofstra has faced all season—had more rebounds by himself (12) than any two Dutchmen, Stephen Nwaukoni pulled down six rebounds and had a go-ahead 3-point play right after Siena took its first lead of the second half.

Mejia and Dwan McMillan combined for 13 assists and just three turnovers and sparked a swarming defense that forced 21 turnovers, including nine in Siena’s first 11 possessions as the Dutchmen raced out to a 10-0 lead. The 21/10 assist-to-turnover ratio was the best of the season for the Dutchmen.

“We’re down to seven scholarship players and we have to keep finding different guys to step up and make plays,” Cassara said. “Stevie and Dwan can really hawk the ball and we’ve had [a few] games we’ve turned a team over 21 times, so at least we’re creating some extra possessions for ourselves. Obviously we’ve had to change a little bit of the way we play and I think that’s been a really positive thing for us.”

And after an overwhelmingly negative CAA season, the Dutchmen have found something on which they can build. No, it’s not very likely the Dutchmen found the winning formula in game no. 29. But hey. The last time a Dutchmen team was 9-20 after 29 games was 1993-94. We all know what happened then.

“We’ve got a chance here the next two games—I told the team William & Mary is the most important game of our season on Wednesday,” Cassara said. “It’s a game where we have a chance to tie them, at least, in the league, a chance to win a tiebreaker, a chance to position ourselves a little better in the CAA Tournament. And then we come back here for Senior Day and then obviously we’re going to give it all we’ve got in the first round of the CAA Tournament.”

3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. Siena, 2/18)
3: Stevie Mejia
2: Mike Moore
1: Nathaniel Lester

Mike Moore 59
Nathaniel Lester 42
Dwan McMillan 17
Stevie Mejia 15
David Imes 14
Stephen Nwaukoni 10
Shemiye McLendon 9
Moussa Kone 5
Bryant Crowder 2
Matt Grogan 1

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