Saturday, January 19, 2013

Northeastern 65, Hofstra 60 (Or: Color them red, then leave us blue)

For more than 35 minutes Wednesday night, the Barone Bowl went according to script. Northeastern looked every bit the unbeaten CAA leader as it produced another unglamorous Bill Coen masterpiece in which the Huskies never bury their opponent but are never in danger of losing the game.

And the Flying Dutchmen, one of the nine or so teams stuck in the quagmire that is the middle of the CAA pack, weren’t playing the error-free game they need to play in order win these days, but their effort was the type to turn the bus ride home an optimistic one free of what-could-have-been tossings and turnings—at least until a frantic late comeback fell just short when Matt Grogan and Stevie Mejia missed potential game-tying 3-pointers in the final 13 seconds of Northeastern’s 65-60 win.

The Dutchmen trailed by double digits multiple times in the second half before producing a 7-1 run during the final four minutes that had the best team in the league reeling at one of the toughest venues in the CAA. No points are given for close calls, of course, but the lessons the Dutchmen learned that likely had them wondering “what if” during the four-hour ride bus home Wednesday night will come in handy over the next seven weeks.

“We hung in there, we hung around, we hung around, we hung around,” Mo Cassara said at his post-game press conference. “We got a couple good looks at the basket, just couldn’t tie it up.”

1.) Lesson no. 1, appropriately enough: Northeastern is the best team in the league, and while the gap between the Huskies and everybody else is far smaller than it usually is between the no. 1 team and everybody else, it’s going to require a complete and sound effort to knock them off. Northeastern has senior leadership in Jonathan Lee, a potential superstar in Quincy Ford and an outstanding coach in Coen who has molded the Huskies into an efficient group that maximizes its opportunities on both ends of the court and rarely lapses into panic mode.

Northeastern never trailed Wednesday and answered every Dutchmen surge with the type of mini-run that our good friend Mike Litos loves. In the first half, the Huskies went on a 7-0 run after the Dutchmen tied the game (for the only time) at 3-3, went on a 6-2 run after the Dutchmen pulled within 10-7 and went on a 6-0 run after the Dutchmen closed to 24-19.

The biggest second half mini-run was all Ford, who scored eight unanswered points after the Dutchmen narrowed the lead to 36-32. The Dutchmen didn’t get within a single possession again until the final minute, and the three errant shots by Taran Buie, Grogan and Mejia marked the only time in the last 35 minutes that the Dutchmen had a chance to tie the game.

2.) The Dutchmen, meanwhile, made the type of mistakes they can’t afford to make against most teams, never mind Northeastern. The Dutchmen committed 17 turnovers, which the Huskies turned into 28 points. They turned the ball over three times during Northeastern’s first 7-0 run and turned it over twice during their late 7-1 as they tried to close within two or three points.

In addition, the Dutchmen were just 6-of-11 from the free throw line, including a 2-of-7 effort from guards Stevie Mejia and Taran Buie, the latter of whom missed both free throws after he stole the ball at midcourt and was fouled on a fast break in the final 10 seconds of the first half. Those are the sequences that keep coaches up at night.

As for the ill-fated attempts to tie the game: The Dutchmen appeared to be trying to catch Northeastern off guard by having Grogan shoot the 3-pointer off the inbounds pass, but the ball bounced off the shot clock and caromed to Mejia, who misfired on what appeared to be a decent-looking shot from beyond the arc.

“When it left his hand, I thought it was in,” Cassara said. “Really looked like a good shot.”

3.) All that said, there was a lot to be encouraged about—most notably David Imes’ rapid transformation into a shooting guard. Imes had the best game of his career—and probably the best game anyone’s played for the Dutchmen since that guy Jenkins graduated—as he scored 19 points (on 5-of-7 shooting from 3-point land) to go along with five rebounds, three assists and three blocks. Imes drained a 3-pointer to start the Dutchmen’s late run and pulled down the rebound that led to Jordan Allen’s layup that closed the gap to 63-60.

Imes, who scored in double figures just once in his first 14 games this year, has scored 29 points in the Dutchmen’s last two games, a stretch in which he is shooting a blistering 7-of-11 from beyond the arc. He was 13-of-42 shooting from 3-point land in his first 14 games.

Imes became just the third Hofstra player since 1989-90 to have a 15-rebound game as well as game in which he drained five 3-pointers. Imes has twice collected 17 rebounds (most recently against UNC Wilmington on Feb. 23, 2011). The other members of the exclusive club: Demetrius Dudley (multiple five 3-pointer games, 16 rebounds against Towson State—THEY WERE ACTUALLY TOWSON STATE BACK THEN—in the ECC championship game Mar. 9, 1992) and Norman Richardson (multiple five 3-pointre games. 16 rebounds against New Hampshire Feb. 17, 2001).

We’ll need to see this for another week or so before we dub him the Roberto Gittens—i.e. a senior who lifted his play once the calendar flipped to January—of a new generation, but regardless, it’s pretty impressive work from someone who spent much of the last two years as an undersized center or power forward.

“He’s gradually become a guard because we don’t have any other guys,” Cassara said. “So he’s gone from really playing the ‘5’ for us to really playing the ‘2,’ and he’s on the perimeter a little bit more. Got some good looks tonight, made some shots.”

4.) The Dutchmen needed their true shooting guard to make more shots. Buie’s road struggles continued as he scored 11 points on 4-of-15 shooting, including just 2-of-9 inside the 3-point line. He was a little bit better in the second half, when he hit both of his 3-pointers and scored eight points, but his missed layup set up the Dutchmen’s final two 3-point attempts. In addition, Buie’s first half performance—he was 1-of-6 shooting with two turnovers, both of which the Huskies converted into baskets—helped put the Dutchmen into the hole from which they could not escape.

Buie had his breakout game on the road (29 points at Long Island University Dec. 8), but since then, he’s shooting just 28.3 percent (15-of-53) in four road games and only 32.9 percent (27-of-82) overall.

“We’ve got to find a way to get him going,” Cassara said. “We aren’t going to win a lot when he’s 4-of-15 from the field. He’s 8-of-15 from the field tonight, it’s certainly a very close game.”

5.) Worth filing away as the Dutchmen prepare to head to George Mason for tomorrow afternoon’s tilt: Buie (38 minutes), Mejia (12 points, four assists five turnovers and three steals in 37 minutes), Imes (37 minutes) and Stephen Nwaukoni (another near double-double with 11 points and eight rebounds in 34 minutes) were all marathon men. Nwaukoni set a career-high in minutes played and shattered his previous season-high by seven minutes. Reserves Grogan, Moussa Kone, Daquan Brown and Darren Payen combined for three points and two rebounds in 32 minutes. Captain Obvious: The Dutchmen will need more out of their sparse bench going forward, especially come tournament time.

3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. Northeastern, 1/16)
3: David Imes
2: Stephen Nwaukoni
1: Stevie Mejia

24: Taran Buie
22: Stevie Mejia
12: Stephen Nwaukoni
7: David Imes
7: Jordan Allen
4: Moussa Kone
3: Daquan Brown
2: Matt Grogan

***21 points vacated

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