There were a lot of possible endings to the Choose Your Own Adventure book that was the Flying Dutchmen’s home opener Friday night. Yes. That’s right. I just referenced the Choose Your Own Adventure books. A new all-time high for me!
But after consecutive 29-point losses to open the season, even the most optimistic and rule-bending of fans (you’re not supposed to flip through the book to find a happy resolution) could have imagined landing at the most dramatic and unbelievable of endings: Shaquille Stokes draining a Jenkins-esque 3-pointer with three seconds to play, South Dakota State missing a 3-pointer at the buzzer and Stokes getting swallowed up by teammates at the press table as a crowd of 3,142 (including a two-month-old who didn’t seem to get the fuss) roared with a fury and enthusiasm straight out of February 2011 as it celebrated the Dutchmen’s stunning 66-63 win over the Jackrabbits.
For the second straight year, it is Hofstra—HOFSTRA—that has authored the CAA’s first signature non-conference win. (Sorry, George Mason and Delaware, but blame Virginia)
“I don’t know if everybody in here realizes how good that team is,” Mo Cassara said. “That team we beat today is an NCAA Tournament team. They’re going to win 25, 26, 28 games and they had Alabama beat [in the last minute] down at Alabama. So great win for us.”
1.) It was a win that was cleansing and cathartic for those who remembered last year. With nine newcomers on a 14-player roster, it’s not fair to expect the Dutchmen to shoulder the burdens of last year’s failings. But last night was desperately essential for everyone else who recalls how the Dutchmen went 1-4 in games decided by three points or less and 2-8 in games decided by six points or less last year.
“Feels great,” said one of those holdovers, Stevie Mejia, who had perhaps his best game in a Hofstra uniform with 14 points, a career-high seven rebounds, three assists and just one turnover in a career-high 37 minutes. “Last year we had a lot of close games. I remember a lot of close games. But it feels good just to mentally be strong enough just to get this win.”
2.) In winning, the Dutchmen displayed the traits they didn’t have last year. They won after trailing by seven points in the first half and after heading into the locker room down by a point. The Dutchmen didn’t win a single game they trailed at the half last year and the biggest deficit they overcame in a win was a mere five points.
In the second half, the Dutchmen played strong defense and never trailed after the 14:46 mark, largely because South Dakota State didn’t mount a 4-0 “run” at any point after the 16-minute mark. Contrast that to last year and the home game against Northeastern in particular, when the Huskies scored on 17 of their final 20 possessions in a two-point win.
“I thought we contested every shot,” Cassara said.
3.) Most of all, a year after they couldn’t find someone to replace Charles Jenkins’ ruthlessness in the final minute, the Dutchmen have multiple players who want the ball with the game on the line. Just ask Stokes.
“Taran and Stevie kept calling for the ball,” Stokes said of the Dutchmen’s final possession. “I waved ‘em off, like ‘nah, I’m gonna be the one to shoot this one.’ So I just shot it and it went in.”
Stokes’ final shot wasn’t the only thing that was Jenkins-esque. After going 0-for-4 from the field in the first half, Stokes scored all nine of his points on 4-of-5 shooting in the second half and scored the Dutchmen’s last five points. He gave the Dutchmen a 63-60 lead with a pretty floater in the lane with 54 seconds to play.
And like Jenkins, Stokes oozes personality and leadership. Despite being the youngest player at the podium, he won the press conference when he answered a question about how the Dutchmen took better care of the ball Friday, when they committed just 10 turnovers after turning it over 40 times in their first two games.
“We got tired of running those sprints,” Stokes said as those in attendance laughed.
“Can I leave that one alone?” Cassara said. “Let that answer it?”
4.) It’s only one game, but Buie looks like he is going to answer, with affirmative authority, the answer to the question “Will ANY Hofstra transfer EVER work out?” Playing in his first game in almost two years, and fresh off a two-game suspension for a violation of team rules, Buie hit his first shot, a 3-pointer with 13:29 to go in the first half, to give the Dutchmen an 11-8 lead. He scored 11 of his 14 points in the first half, including seven unanswered points that single-handedly pulled the Dutchmen even at 25-25.
“When that first shot [was made by] Taran, it was almost like the pressure just came off everybody,” Cassara said. “Because all of a sudden we’ve got another threat to score. He’s got his feet underneath him and then all of a sudden we’re putting the ball in the basket.”
It doesn’t seem a coincidence the Dutchmen’s guards started putting the ball in the basket as soon as Buie arrived. Buie, Mejia, Stokes, Kentrell Washington and Dallas Anglin were a combined 15-of-32 shooting last night. That’s more field goals, in less than half the attempts, than the Dutchmen guards had in the first two games combined, when they shot a brutal 12-of-66.
“It’s amazing: When you put the ball in the basket, you play a little harder on defense,” Cassara said. “So credit to these guys.”
Buie also displayed an ability to create for others with a pair of nifty assists. And he brings a Cornelius Vines-esque edge to the Dutchmen, that type of grit that should turn him into the player Everyone Else In The CAA Hates in the blink of an eye come January. Buie drew a pair of charges and was a hand-clapping, opponent-annoying machine from the moment he drained his first basket.
“It’s been a long journey, a long two years since I’ve been on the court,” Buie said. “[There was] a lot of off-the-court stuff that I had to get through to get to this place. I’m very proud of myself for making it back on the court and then playing as well as I did today.”
5.) While the three guards dominated the stars of the game (SPOILER ALERT!), the Dutchmen received the type of team-wide contributions they rarely got from last year’s ravaged roster. Jimmy Hall (eight points, nine rebounds and four blocks) once again flirted with a double-double while Moussa Kone (six points, five rebounds) and Stephen Nwaukoni (eight points, five rebounds) provided solid minutes down low. David Imes scored just three points and Jordan Allen’s lone two points came from the free throw line, but Imes’ 3-pointer gave the Dutchmen their first multi-possession lead of the game early in the second half and Allen’s two free throws tied it in the final minute of the first half.
“I give credit to these guys [and] especially guys [who are] not here right now, like Moussa, Stephen, Jordan,” Mejia said. “They came in and gave great minutes.”
6.) And now the useless but fun stats from last night: The Dutchmen beat a current Summit League team for the first time. Three of the four games they have played against Summit League teams have been decided by three points or less…The Dutchmen avoided falling to 0-3 for the 22nd team in program history. They are now 8-7 in the third game of seasons in which they have opened 0-2…The Dutchmen have won nine straight home openers and are 14-6 in home openers in the Defiantly Dutch Era and 30-12 in home openers since moving to Division I.
3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. South Dakota State 11/15)
3: Stevie Mejia
2: Taran Buie
1: Shaq Stokes
6: Jimmy Hall
4: Moussa Kone
3: Stevie Mejia
2: Taran Buie
2: Shaq Stokes
1: David Imes