The Dutchmen fared better against the Fighting Bill Lawrences on Saturday than J.D. did with Julie!
Even the seemingly easy wins are not easy for the Flying Dutchmen. So while the Dutchmen led wire-to-wire in their 70-59 win over the College of Bill Lawrence last Saturday—and never let the lead slip below four points after a game-opening 9-0 run—Cassara agonized for every single one of the game’s 2,400 seconds.
Cassara grimaced with every turnover the Dutchmen committed and with every bounce that didn’t go their way. He motioned frantically when Jordan Allen and Taran Buie mis-communicated in the final minute and their attempt to burn clock led to a William & Mary steal and easy basket that narrowed the Dutchmen’s lead to nine points.
And a few minutes before that, after Stevie Mejia’s 3-pointer fell about three-quarters of the way down the basket before rimming out, Cassara hugged—yes, hugged—referee Tim Comer as Comer began running back the other way.
“I actually hugged him to try to sit him down on the bench,” Cassara said with a grin afterward. “I know him from back in the ACC. So he didn’t mind. He knew we were working our butts off.”
The Dutchmen certainly did that in producing perhaps the most unlikely 2-1 start in CAA history. (Hey, no CAA team that has ever entered January with 10 non-conference losses has ever won two of its first three league games of the new year, hooray small statistical samples!) Less than 72 hours after falling at Delaware by 15 points, the Dutchmen authored the type of thorough and impressive victory that has been in exceedingly short supply the last two years—and one they’ll have to figure out a way to replicate in order to have a chance to compete in the depleted CAA.
“Believe me, we have a long way to go,” Cassara said. “We’ve got a lot of games to play. Nothing’s going to be easy—nothing is going to be easy with us.”
1.) This was the Dutchmen’s best-case scenario type of game. They got off to a fast start and were able to dictate the tone against an atypically sloppy William & Mary squad that scored on just one of its first 10 possessions, missed its first five free throws and didn’t hit double digits until 14 minutes and 28 seconds had elapsed. The Tribe’s 17 points were the fewest allowed by the Dutchmen in a first half since William & Mary LED 17-15 at Hofstra on Jan. 21, 2009.
“Great scouting, great execution, great game plan and we did it to a ‘T,’” Cassara said. “I really felt walking out of our shoot-around this morning that we were going to win today, just because we had everything down.
“So proud of the start, I thought some of our guys did a great job of getting us off to a good start and certainly we did a good job of hanging on.”
2.) The Dutchmen’s rotation doesn’t run very deep at all, but they got the maximum production out of it against the Fighting Bill Lawrences. Taran Buie (24 points on 8-of-17 shooting, including 3-of-9 from 3-point land) bounced back from the Delaware debacle, which freed up Stevie Mejia (14 points, nine assists, two turnovers, two steals, one block) to concentrate on facilitator duties. And new shooting guard David Imes drained two 3-pointers and finished with 10 points and eight rebounds.
The Dutchmen got especially impressive efforts from big men Stephen Nwaukoni and Moussa Kone, who combined for 15 points and 17 rebounds in 41 minutes. They operated as a tag-team of sorts, with Nwaukoni collecting all seven of his points and six of his nine rebounds in the first half and Kone racking up all eight of his points and six of his eight rebounds in the second half.
“I thought Stephen Nwaukoni gave us an unbelievable first half,” Cassara said. “And Moussa gave us an unbelievable second half. I think that’s a sign of a team coming together.”
3.) For the second straight home game, the Dutchmen played outstanding perimeter defense and shut down the opposition’s biggest scoring threat. Marcus Thornton scored 17 points—nine of which came from the free throw line—and was just 3-of-13 from the field, including 2-of-9 from 3-point land. Fellow guard Brandon Britt had 21 points, but did most of his damage from inside the arc (6-of-9 on 2-pointers, 2-of-7 on 3-pointers). Overall, the Tribe were 4-of-25 on 3-pointers, which actually represented an improvement on the 2-of-20 that Georgia State shot on Monday night, when the Dutchmen limited R.J. Hunter to XX points on SHOOTING HERE.
“You’ve got to give a lot of credit to the coaching staff, they did a great job of preparing us for everything that [William & Mary] run[s],” Buie said. “They put in some good defensive principles that allowed us to take away what they’re good at.”
4.) While the Dutchmen won by a seemingly wide margin, they displayed resiliency in withstanding a handful of Tribe runs and in finishing them off over the final few minutes. Buie, who hit an off-balance putback of his own miss at the halftime buzzer to give the Dutchmen a 27-17 lead, drained 3-pointers the first two times the Tribe closed the gap to four points in the second half while Daquan Brown hit his only basket of the game the third time William & Mary pulled to within four.
The Dutchmen didn’t immediately respond the fourth and final time the Fighting Bill Lawrences got the gap down to four points. Matt Rum missed a 3-pointer for the Tribe, after which Mejia missed two free throws before redeeming himself with an impressive sequence in which he stole the ball, hit a fast break layup, recorded a block and a steal on William & Mary’s next trip and then had assists on the Dutchmen’s next two baskets as they extended the lead to 54-44. The Dutchmen lead never fell below seven the rest of the way as Mejia went 10-for-10 from the line over the final 2:50.
“Stevie’s doing a great job,” Cassara said. “He’s another guy I’m super-tough on, and you can see that, whether it’s in practice or off the court or in games. He’s played a lot of different roles and I thought he did a good job playing a different role [Saturday] and made some big free throws for us.”
5.) With the Dutchmen possessing such a thin roster—and such a thin margin for error—Cassara has narrowed the coach’s cliché from one game at a time to one possession at a time. But even he knew, with trips to Northeastern and George Mason on the docket this week that the Dutchmen had to find a way to get out of the first week with a 2-1 league mark.
To be 1-2 or 0-3 after the first week would have the Dutchmen staring at the likelihood of a 1-4 or 0-5 start, which is an almost impossible hole to climb out of even in a historically awful year for the CAA. But to be 2-3 with two home games coming up against Drexel and UNC Wilmington? Not a bad worst-case scenario to be in. For once.
“My thing was we’ve got to try to go 2-1 this week, because next week, with our best team, we might not win those two games,” Cassara said. “I mean, you’re talking about two of the best teams in the league, two of the best coaches in the league, two of the toughest places to play in the league. We can play great and not win either one of those games. So it was really important that we take care of [the] home court and try to get a couple home wins.”
3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. William & Mary, 1/12)
3: Taran Buie
2: Stevie Mejia
1: David Imes
23: Taran Buie
21: Stevie Mejia
10: Stephen Nwaukoni
7: Jordan Allen
4: David Imes
4: Moussa Kone
3: Daquan Brown
2: Matt Grogan
***21 points vacated