Only 11 more chances to figure out the theme of the post-game recaps, Loyal Reader Missy, err, everyone!
Referee Sean Casady sidled up to Mo Cassara as the Flying Dutchmen produced their most dominant CAA victory in more than two years and asked the question on the minds of most of the 3,017 fans at Hofstra Arena.
“He said ‘Where has this been all year?’” Cassara said after the Dutchmen routed UNC Wilmington, 93-64, in the regular season finale Saturday.
Cassara and his players have believed they were capable of a performance like this throughout an exasperating, luckless season in which the effort never waned even as the Dutchmen suffered narrow loss after narrow loss. It all finally came together in a rollicking Senior Day victory fueled by the three departing Dutchmen.
CAA scoring champion Mike Moore had 30 points and Nathaniel Lester remained among the top 10 scorers in the league with 20 points to lead five Dutchmen in double figures. But the most impressive performance was authored by the third senior, Dwan McMillan, who racked up an incredible 15 assists—the most in the CAA this season and one shy of the Hofstra single-game record, set way back by Robbie Weingard in the 1983-84 season—to surge past VCU’s Darius Theus and win the CAA’s assist title.
“We had as many close games as anybody in the league, if not in the country this year, [and] didn’t come out on the right end of a lot of them,” Cassara said. “But tonight I thought our energy was great, our effort was great and our attitude was great. And that’s a credit to these three guys. Their stats throughout the course of the game were really incredible.”
As a team, the Dutchmen put up some pretty incredible—and borderline historical—stats. The Dutchmen tied a team record, set way back in the 1988-89 season, with 25 assists. The Dutchmen shot 56.6 percent, their best effort since the season opener against Long Island, and drained a season-high 12 3-pointers. Defensively, the Dutchmen enjoyed a 39-possession stretch in which they didn’t allow UNC Wilmington to score on consecutive trips up the floor.
The Dutchmen led by as many as 37 with a little more than two minutes to play prior to a game-ending 13-4 run by the Seahawks and were on pace for their first 100-point effort against a Division I opponent in almost exactly 20 years until Cassara took the air out of the ball down the stretch(cough, would never happen if Jaime Larranaga coached here, cough cough).
The 29-point victory was still the program’s biggest margin of victory over a Division I opponent since a 93-54 win over UNC Wilmington Jan. 27, 2010, the game that infamously got Benny Moss Benny Mossed. And the lopsided win cut the Dutchmen’s overall point differential this season by more than half (from 54 points to 25 points) and made them just one of two CAA teams to win at least two games by 25 points this season.
“We were clicking on the offensive end and defensive end,” Lester said. “Not a bad time to start.”
We won’t know until late Friday night whether the win was the start of something big—or at least a run to Sunday or Monday in the CAA Tournament—or merely a fluke outburst against the worst defensive team in the CAA. But the Dutchmen certainly displayed some elements of a winning team against the Seahawks.
The Dutchmen got off to their usual fast start (taking a 9-0 lead, during which UNC Wilmington coach Buzz Peterson subbed out his entire starting lineup) before, as usual, quickly allowing the opponent back into the contest. But after falling behind 14-11, the Dutchmen outscored the Seahawks 34-11 to end the first half and remained ruthless and unrelenting in the second half.
The Dutchmen improved to 8-9 when three or more players score in double digits (Stevie Mejia, Stephen Nwaukoni and Shemiye McLendon all scored 10 points each). The dual point guard combination of McMillan and Mejia continued to create opportunities on both ends of the floor: In addition to combining for 19 assists, they sparked a defense that recorded eight steals (the 10th time in 11 games they’ve had at least seven thefts) and forced more turnovers than the Dutchmen committed for the 10th straight game.
“I think this small lineup has helped us a lot,” Cassara said. “I think the pressure we’ve been able to put [on teams], like last Saturday on Siena and for the most part William & Mary until the very end of the game and then today, we’ve been able to wear some teams down. So we have to try to continue to do that.”
Nwaukoni had a double-double (10 points and 10 rebounds) and mostly neutralized UNC Wilmington big man Keith Rendleman. Moussa Kone fouled out in just 17 minutes of play, but hit both of his field goal attempts, including a sweet 10-foot bank shot in the first half, as well as both of his free throws. He’s 5-for-5 from the field in the last two games and 4-of-5 from the free throw line in the last four games after beginning the season by hitting just 10 of his first 28 attempts.
“I thought [Nwaukoni] did a great job defensively,” Cassara said. “I think you saw his strength. Rendleman is a terrific player and our whole team did a great job on him, doubling him in the post and frustrating him.”
The odds are this frustrating season for the Dutchmen won’t have a Hollywood ending (as we’ll get into all week long with the annual Just The Facts, coming soon to a screen near you!) and that extending the program’s Senior Day winning streak to 16 games will stand as the highlight of the most challenging campaign in 17 years. But the rout at least created some momentum for the Dutchmen heading into Friday night’s opening round game against Georgia State and provided a glimpse at what this team can do when things are clicking.
“Better late than never—it’s a start,” Moore said. “This gives us a lot of momentum going in and a lot of confidence for the guys whose shots haven’t been falling.”
“We’ve really been having great practices the last two weeks,” McMillan said. “Some of the games we haven’t closed out, but I think we can make some noise.”