Saturday, March 9, 2013

Near-miracle tourney run for ’91 Dutchwomen gives ’13 Dutchmen hope

Former Flying Dutchwomen basketball coach Ron Rohn.

Those of us who actually remember seeing East Coast Conference games at the Physical Fitness Center know it’s possible for the Flying Dutchmen to pen a Hollywood ending to a nightmarish season by winning the CAA Tournament with three victories in as many days.

But three years before the Flying Dutchmen won the final ECC tournament by winning half as many games in three days as it did all season, another Hofstra basketball team pulled off an even more impressive long-shot feat by simply getting to the ECC championship game.

Indeed, to this day, former Flying Dutchwomen head coach Ron Rohn marvels at the mathematical impossibility of what his understaffed team accomplished by reaching the 1991 ECC title game following a 2-25 regular season.

“At that time, the maximum games to play in the regular season was 27,” Rohn said Friday night from his home in Pennsylvania. “So to go 4-26, I don’t think anybody had ever done that. Because you would have to be 2-25 and then make the finals of your tournament. Who would ever do that?”

Hofstra did that over a wild week in March 1991, when, as the seventh seed in the seven-team ECC tournament, the Dutchwomen upset Maryland-Baltimore County and Rider before falling to top-seeded Delaware, 60-52, in the championship game.

Win or lose, the Dutchwomen’s season was ending in the title game. There was no automatic bid to be won for the ECC, which is just one example of how the college basketball landscape—particularly for women—has changed drastically over the last generation.

“[Today], if we won that game against Delaware, we would have been the lead story on SportsCenter for three or four days—a team that was [5-25] and going to the NCAA Tournament,” Rohn said. “We would be playing [Baylor star] Brittney Griner and counting how many times she dunked on us. Different world.”

Still, that Flying Dutchwomen squad offers plenty of parallels to the current Dutchmen as they attempt to author their own Cinderella story by winning the seven-team CAA tournament as the seventh seed.

The 1990-91 Dutchwomen were a depleted squad that entered the tournament with just seven scholarship players and a roster filled out by walk-ons. These Dutchmen, of course, will have seven scholarship players and four walk-ons in uniform this weekend in Richmond thanks to the arrests of the four knuckleheads and the season-ending injuries suffered by Jamal Coombs-McDaniel and Stephen Nwaukoni.

“We had to suit up our manager, just in case,” Rohn said. “I remember in the last regular season game, we were actually close enough to have a chance to foul a few times and maybe get back in the game. We actually put her in the game, just one of those ‘Kid, go in there and foul the kid who gets the ball’ [situations] because we couldn’t afford our regular players to get any more fouls.

“We had a girl break her foot, we had another kid who [tore] an ACL. It was interesting, to say the least.”

Those Dutchwomen specialized in the near-miss during the regular season, when 13 of their 25 defeats were by eight points or less. Of the 24 losses the Dutchmen have suffered this season, 11 have been by eight points or less, including a one-point loss 10 days ago to tonight’s opponent, Delaware.

Rohn, like Mo Cassara this year, saw improvement even if it wasn’t translating into victories. The Dutchwomen opened the year with eight straight losses before beating St. Francis, after which they lost 15 in a row before knocking off Towson State.

“We were close to beating a lot of these teams in the regular season,” Rohn said, “It wasn’t like we were losing to the Delawares and Riders by 50 and then all of a sudden we knocked them off in the tournament. There wasn’t that big of a difference by the end.”

“As a coach you sort of try to judge yourself on getting the most out of your talent. And that year, we really got the most out of our talent. Because there was a lot of games we lost by six or eight points that we probably should have lost by 20, But we found a way.”

Rohn said the lure of a postseason tournament, and the possibility of ending the season on a positive note, helped keep the Dutchwomen motivated as the losses piled up.

“One of the big benefits of having a conference tournament is that players and coaches can sort of take the approach of ‘Hey, as long as we keep working hard and keep getting better, then we can still win the thing,’” Rohn said. ”[It’s] a reason to keep playing, as opposed to just cashing it in for the last month of the season.”

The Dutchwomen had one benefit the Dutchmen won’t get this weekend. After traveling to second-seeded UMBC and pulling off the 54-52 upset win, the Dutchwomen had three days off before traveling to Delaware, which was hosting the semifinals and finals.

In addition to taking advantage of the extra rest, Rohn used the break to dig into his bag of motivational tricks, Before the Dutchwomen left for Delaware, Rohn brought a ladder into the PFC.

“We climbed up on it and we practiced cutting down the nets,” Rohn said. “I wanted to convince them that we had a chance to win, I don’t want to embarrass ourselves when we win down there and we don’t know how to cut down the nets.”

The Dutchwomen moved within one win of cutting down the nets by beating Rider 64-56. Rohn began to wonder if the Dutchwomen were charmed when foul trouble late in the second half forced him to put in one of the walk-ons, a player who he said had a hard time even maintaining a dribble. The first time she touched the ball, she drained a 15-footer from the corner.

“Nothing but net,” Rohn said. “And you’re sort of like, maybe it’s just meant to be.”

Alas, the impossible dream came to an end the next day against the Blue Hens. A late comeback attempt by the Dutchwomen ended when star Betsy Lange, who finished her career as the fifth-leading scorer in school history, suffered a torn ACL when she was hit going up for a fast break layup.

Twenty-two years later, one of the most unique tournament runs in Hofstra history remains a fond memory for Rohn, who coached two more seasons at Hofstra before spending six seasons as the head coach at Colgate. He has spent the last 11 years at Division III Muhlenberg, whom he has directed to seven 20-win seasons.

Rohn is hilariously self-deprecating about Hofstra’s brush with history and how short-lived the honeymoon was during their two-game winning streak.

“True story about beating UMBC down there and then taking the bus home in the middle of the night,” Rohn said. “Stop at a rest stop to get something to eat and we’re so excited. We’re big stars. We just won this big tournament game.

“And we’re not at the rest stop five minutes and Penn State’s [women’s basketball] bus pulls in,” Rohn said. “Number one in the country [Penn State finished 29-2]. You have one of those years you can’t even be the best team at your rest stop on I-95.”

He was likewise quick with a crack when asked if he had any advice for Cassara heading into this weekend, though he did eventually offer words of wisdom on how a team can turn a forgettable regular season into a tournament run to remember.

“You want advice from someone who went 2-25? Stay away from sharp objects,” Rohn said with a laugh. “I think you go in there, you have fun. You just have a chance—sort of like the American dream. A second chance, that second opportunity. Let’s face it: My guess is if they go down there and just win their first tournament game, that will make the season for all the kids left on the team.

“You get to play loose and without any pressure. And funny things can happen when you do that.”

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