The last loss of the season was so disheartening, I'm not even posting the usual Cinderella song.
This wasn’t the synergistic ending to a hard-luck season the Flying Dutchmen seemed destined to suffer, never mind the start of the shocking Cinderella run that everyone hoped to experience even while realizing it was the longest of long shots. The close-but-not-quite Dutchmen would play well for large periods of time against Georgia State in the first round of the CAA Tournament Friday night, get done in by an untimely mistake or two and head home for the summer pondering what might have been, both in the CAA Tournament and in a season in which the raw data didn’t match up to the final record.
Except a season that began with the Dutchmen losing their first six CAA games by a combined 35 points and was defined by resiliency even in defeat ended with an 85-50 loss to Georgia State that was not nearly as close as the score indicated. It was still the most lopsided CAA Tournament loss in history as well as Hofstra’s worst conference loss since moving to Division I.
“The one thing I said is we never gave up all year,” Mo Cassara said. “Certainly we had enough challenges where we could have given up and could have not won and really played poorly at times. But we never did that. I really believe this is the first night all year where the game really got away from us.”
The Dutchmen at their best last night wouldn’t have beaten a Georgia State team determined to take out its aggressions over being slighted in the conference awards balloting. Led by CAA Defensive Player of the Year runner-up Eric Buckner (21 points on 7-of-7 shooting from the field and 7-of-8 from the line, 11 rebounds and two blocks), the Panthers shot 59.6 percent, drained 20 of 24 free throws, outrebounded the Dutchmen 35-23, forced 15 turnovers and got 14 players into the boxscore. The Georgia State bench outscored Dutchmen reserves 28-1 (a first half Moussa Kone free throw).
“The coach and the team, we all have a little chip on our shoulder right now,” said Panthers coach Ron Hunter, who inexplicably finished second to Bruiser Flint in the Coach of the Year voting. “We’ve had it all year. And it’s magnified by 100 right now for a lot of different reasons.”
But Georgia State’s dominance shouldn’t obscure just how badly the Dutchmen played, especially after a reasonably promising start. There were six ties and three lead changes in the first eight minutes, but in their final 21 possessions of the first half—beginning right after they tied the game for the final time—the Dutchmen scored 11 points, committed nine turnovers (including four in a row at the start of the stretch) and were just 3-of-10 from the field.
Georgia State expanded the lead to 10 by the six minute mark, to 20 with 3:57 left and led 45-24 at the half—the worst halftime deficit for Hofstra since Nov. 18, 2010 against top-ranked North Carolina. From thereon, the only good thing about the game was how fast it moved towards completion. The final buzzer sounded about an hour and 50 minutes after tipoff, which must also be a CAA Tournament record.
The Dutchmen got three players into double figures—they were 9-8 in such games during the regular season—but Mike Moore (16 points), Stevie Mejia (14 points and two steals) and Nathaniel Lester (11 points) were just 13-of-34 from the field. Moore (2-of-7 from 3-point land) and Lester (3-of-10 from the field and 5-of-9 from the line) had particularly rough outings in their final collegiate games. Fellow outgoing senior Dwan McMillan had more turnovers (four) than assists (two) for just the fifth time this year and the first time since Jan. 18.
“I just think overall we didn’t have the performance we needed by anybody or collectively to compete tonight,” Cassara said.
The resounding nature of the defeat to the CAA’s sixth-place team served as a harrowing reminder of how far the Dutchmen have to go to get back to where they once were, and a wistful reminder of how thin a line it is between contention and irrelevance.
“I told the guys a year ago we were sitting in here, we had won 21 games and we were tied for second in the league,” Cassara said. “A year later we’re getting blown out and we’re second-to-last. So there’s a lesson to learn in that—a lot of lessons for our staff to learn, a lot of lessons for you young guys and certainly lessons for the seniors who now [have] got to move on and do something else with their lives.”
The Dutchmen could survive the spring 2010 ravaging of the program, and the subsequent hastened recruiting period, thanks to the transcendence of Charles Jenkins. But the bill came due in a hurry this season, when the Dutchmen didn’t have the replenishments for Jenkins and Greg Washington.
The next generation will begin arriving in the fall, when transfers Jamaal Coombs-McDaniel and Taran Buie lead an influx of new talent, but Friday night’s loss magnified the scope of this rebuilding job and the reality the Dutchmen are more than just a couple players away from regaining their usual spot in the top half of the CAA.
Programs win in the CAA, and nobody knows the enormity of the task ahead better than Cassara, who realizes Hofstra, in its current state, has no foundation. In his post-game comments, Cassara made three references to the amount of work the coaching staff has ahead of it.
Dutchmen fans can take some solace in knowing that brighter days began appearing almost immediately after the last time the program suffered through a season like this. Jay Wright’s second year at the helm in 1995-96—in which he went 9-20 largely with holdovers from the Butch van Breda Kolff era and some placeholders—ended with a Friday night loss in a conference tournament. Speedy Claxton arrived that fall.
Perhaps a decade or more down the road we will look back on Friday as a bottoming out and the start of a new era, and realize that Coombs-McDaniel, Buie or one of the freshman became for Cassara what Claxton was for Wright. But before Cassara could look ahead to better days, there was a loss over which to stew, one which will surely stoke the fire inside him in the coming days, weeks, months and years as he does whatever he can to make sure nights like Friday and seasons like 2011-12 never happen again.
“I’ve got to be honest with you, this is a little bit of unchartered territory for me,” Cassara said. “As a young coach, as a head coach, I’ve never been in a situation like this. I’ve never been on the other side of a loss like that ever. I mean, in all my years. It’s something I’ve got to learn to deal with. It’s something that we’ve got to learn, as a staff, to figure out how to get back to the top part of this league. And it’s not going to be easy. It’s going to take a lot of hard work.”