Like most of the 1,169 fans in attendance, Stevie Mejia and Mo Cassara feared the final page of the script Monday night would be a terribly familiar one.
The Flying Dutchmen had led for the last 25-plus minutes and outplayed Georgia State most of the evening, but the Panthers had the ball with six seconds to play and a last shot to hit the game-winning buzzer-beater that would hand the Flying Dutchmen a loss gut-wrenching even by 2012-13 standards.
Except somehow, the twist ending benefited the Dutchmen. Devonta White got a good look at a 3-pointer with a second left, but the ball bounced off the rim and into Jordan Allen’s hands as Hofstra MOVED INTO FIRST PLACE IN THE CAA with a 52-50 win.
“When he was coming up I was like ‘I hope he doesn’t hit this,’” Mejia said. “I knew he was going to shoot it. It looked good, though.”
“Yeah it did,” Cassara said.
“You’ve gotta have luck sometimes to be good,” Mejia said.
For once, the Dutchmen’s luck was something other than rotten as they ended an eight-game losing streak that stretched back 50 days and started before the program was decimated by—well, you know. For once, it was someone else wondering what might have been if an awful shooting night was just a smidge less awful, someone else wondering what might have been if they just could have gotten the lead one time in the second half.
For once, it was the Dutchmen who made the big plays—none bigger than Mejia’s teardrop jumper with six seconds left that broke a tie and provided the final score—and left the arena with smiles on their faces.
“Losing, it’s definitely not fun, it makes us go a lot harder in practice, it puts a lot of tension around [them] to win games,” Taran Buie said. “So after a big win like this, it just kind of takes that burden off your shoulders, gives you relief, lets us know it’s possible. It’s like missing a bunch of shot sand just seeing one go in.”
1.) There were 35 teams in Division I that entered the heart of their conference schedules with at least 10 non-league losses, and every single one of them probably felt they needed to start January with a win more than anyone else in the nation. But the Dutchmen certainly looked like the most relieved of the country’s 347 D-I programs in the moments after White’s shot missed the mark.
Coaches and players walked off the court with giant smiles on their faces. Cassara draped his right arm around Buie, but as they headed towards the locker room, it seemed as if a completely drained Cassara was leaning in to, and being held up by, Buie.
“I almost don’t remember what it felt like [to win],” Cassara said. “It’s been a while. I just knew we were right there. I think of Florida Atlantic and Wright State and Wagner and LIU—games that we were right there and just didn’t execute down the stretch.
“Tonight we made a couple big shots, thought we got some great [efforts] from different guys, we handled their pressure and Stevie made a really big shot at the end of the game.”
2.) Mejia’s game-winner wasn’t the only big shot he hit. Mejia, who led all players with 17 points and four assists and tied for the game lead with two steals, drained a 3-pointers to give the Dutchmen their first lead in the first half and then sank a jumper to put the Dutchmen up 20-19 with 5:48 left. The Dutchmen never trailed again after that. He also hit his career-high third 3-pointer to give the Dutchmen their biggest lead of the game at 37-25 with 15:41 left and broke the second half’s first tie with a jumper with 3:11 to go.
Mejia finished 7-of-12 from the field as the Dutchmen improved to 6-3 over the last two seasons in games in which he shoots at least 50 percent (minimum five shots). The Dutchmen are 6-25 in the other 31 games in which Mejia has played.
“He’s our captain and he’s the fuel that makes the engine go,” Cassara said of Mejia. “I talk to him about it all the time: When he’s good and he’s energetic and he’s playing well, we’re going to play well.”
3.) The same goes for Buie, who didn’t exactly break out of his shooting slump in a 4-of-12 performance. But all four of his baskets were big ones. He ended an 8-0 run by Georgia State, and began a half-ending 19-4 run for the Dutchmen, with a jumper with 10:50 left. His 3-pointer with 2:39 gave the Dutchmen expanded the lead to eight.
In the second half, two Buie free throws ended another 8-0 run by Georgia State that cut the Dutchmen lead to four points. With 9:04 left, Buie drained a jumper to push the lead back to three, and a little less than two minutes later, he hit a 3-pointer to stretch the lead to four. The 3-pointer came from the right corner one trip after he fired up an air ball form the left corner.
“Taran shoots an air ball in one corner but then has the guts to come back and shoot it again in the other corner,” Cassara said. “That’s probably, between that shot and Stevie’s shot, why we win the game. Taran doesn’t make that shot in the corner, Stevie doesn’t make that shot in the end, I’ve got a long face right now.”
4.) The Dutchmen came up with their best defensive performance of the season, by far, and needed every bit of it.
“Our defense was great, we threw a lot of different looks at them,” Cassara said.
After falling behind 17-10, the Dutchmen held Georgia State scoreless from the field for 10 possessions and a span of more than nine minutes. Overall, Georgia State shot just 36 percent from the field, the second-lowest figure by a Dutchmen opponent this year, and 10 percent (2-of-20) from 3-point land, which was the worst performance by an opponent since George Mason was 1-of-11 on Feb. 26, 2005. (Aww, too bad). The perimeter defense was especially impressive considering the last four teams the Dutchmen faced shot a blistering 37.6 percent (32-of-85) from beyond the arc.
“You’ve got to win league games at home,” Cassara said. “They had to fly up here, they probably had a little [bit of] heavy legs. We had to win this game, and we did.”
5.) And in doing so, the Dutchmen showed the type of resiliency and balance that should benefit them going forward. The Dutchmen opened the game by failing to score on their first five possessions as they fell behind 6-0. In the second half, they surrendered Georgia State’s 8-0 run right after David Imes banged knees with Buie and crumpled to the ground in agony.
But Imes (three points, five rebounds, three assists, two steals) was back within minutes and played a huge role in breaking the Panthers’ press by fielding passes around the Dutchmen foul line and distributing the ball up court. Jordan Allen (eight points, three rebounds and three assists) and Stephen Nwaukoni (seven points, eight rebounds) chipped in just enough to lessen the load on Mejia and Buie.
“Obviously it’s been a long few weeks since we sat in here after a win,” Cassara said. “And we’ve had a lot of opportunities to win games and they’ve slipped away. But this group of guys has been resilient, we’ve had great practices, we’ve had great energy, we’ve had great efforts and tonight we hung in there and got a couple bounces that went our way.”
3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. Georgia State, 1/7)
3: Stevie Mejia
2: Taran Buie
1: Jordan Allen
20: Taran Buie
19: Stevie Mejia
8: Stephen Nwaukoni
7: Jordan Allen
4: Moussa Kone
2: Matt Grogan
2: David Imes
***21 points vacated