Saturday, November 15, 2014

Hofstra 94, Jacksonville 61 (Or: The One That Was Worth The Wait)

A jumper by Flying Dutchwomen guard Krystal Luciano rimmed out at the buzzer, which meant the Dutchwomen and Central Connecticut State (yay parents’ alma mater!) were headed for overtime in the opening game of Friday night’s season-opening doubleheader. Which meant antsy Flying Dutchmen coach Joe Mihalich, who was busting out of his skin by noontime, had another five minutes of basketball to fidget through before he could begin fidgeting through the half-hour between the games.

But he’d only waited 250 days to coach a game that counted. Three of his four new starters—Niagara transfers Juan’ya Green and Ameen Tanksley and SMU transfer Brian Bernardi—hadn’t played since March 2013. I don’t need to tell you how long ago that was.

The women’s game ended (boo parents’ alma mater) and warmups were barely underway when Green ditched his pullover, as if he couldn’t possibly handle another second of non-game action. Later, as the Dutchmen walked to the bench for pre-game introductions, Green began veering towards the spot near the paint where the starters would stand once their names were called.

FINALLY, the game started, and the three newcomers who waited the longest to play for the Flying Dutchmen wasted no time in beginning to provide ample evidence of just why this year might be different than all the rest.

Bernardi, Green and Tanksley combined for 52 points, 14 assists, four steals and two turnovers as the Dutchmen authored one of the most resounding season-opening wins in program history by walloping Jacksonville, 94-61, in front of an energized crowd of 2,208.

“We’re just glad the game finally came,” Mihalich said afterward. “It was a long wait for a lot of people. These two guys I’m sitting besides [Green and Bernardi]—I don’t even know what it was. Seemed like 18 months. Eighteen years.

“Long wait. It was well worth it. As you could see, these guys couldn’t wait to get back out on the court and play.”

The trio had a hand in each of the Dutchmen’s first 14 points – three points and three assists for Green, six points and an assist for Bernardi and the season’s first nostalgic three-point play for Tanksley—as Hofstra buried Jacksonville by the first media timeout.

For the record, it was 16-7 at that point, and the Dolphins never got closer than seven the rest of the way. Or within 10 in the final 31 minutes. Or within 20 in the final 19 minutes. Or within 30 in the final 11 minutes.

The Dutchmen averaged 1.27 points per possession and shot 55.2 percent (37-of-67), including 36 percent (9-of-25) from 3-point land. They made 11 of 15 free throws. They had 24 assists, eight turnovers and 10 blocks.

Ten players scored for Hofstra. Do you know how many times the Dutchmen played 10 players in a game last season? THREE!!!!

“Went pretty good,” Mihalich said. “Couldn’t ask for much more than that. Not just the final score, the fact so many people played well.”

Bernardi led five double-digit scorers for with Dutchmen with a game-high 22 points. Of his eight field goals, six were 3-pointers, one shy of the school record. For fun late in the second half, he dove after a loose ball with the Dutchmen up more than 30 points.

Oh and he also stole my wife during the first half.

“I always go into the game thinking I’m going to make every shot,” Bernardi said. “Once that first one goes in, I feel like I’m not going to miss after that one.”

“To expect that out of somebody isn’t fair to him.” Mihalich said. “But I tell you what, I’ll say this: You’re surprised when Brian Bernardi misses.”

Green, a first-team all-MAAC player in his final season at Niagara and a first-team all-CAA preseason pick this year, had 14 points, nine assists, five rebounds, two steals and no turnovers. That was Stokes-esque. Loren, not the other guy.

“A lot of people would say ‘Well, what’s Juan’ya Green like?’” Mihalich said. “Well, this is what he’s like. Fourteen points, nine assists, five rebounds, no turnovers. So you want to know what Juan’ya Green’s like? That’s what he’s like right there.”

Tanksley scored 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting, yet—spoiler alert—he didn’t even factor into the Three Stars. (yup, that’s back too). JUCO transfer Malik Nichols had 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting and added three assists and a block. Freshman Andre Walker, whom Mihalich said was struggling in practice until this week, had 11 rebounds and six blocks. Another freshman big, Rokas Gustys, had 10 rebounds in 10 minutes.

“Nobody has to be ‘the guy,’” Mihalich said. “Juan’ya doesn’t have to be the guy. He can just play basketball and find Brian Bernardi when he’s open and shoot when he’s open and dump it to Malik Nichols when he cuts to the basket.”

As good as the box score looked, witnessing it live was even more impressive. Mihalich played with his new-found depth like a child at Christmas. It was like watching hockey shifts, except the first line looked as good as the fourth line.

The Dutchmen displayed ball movement skills we’ve quite honestly never seen before. Green had at least two behind-the-back passes for assists that were worthy of their very own highlight video.

“Thought the team was unselfish,” Mihalich said. “We had a couple San Antonio Spurs-like possessions where we moved the ball around pretty good. It’s fun to watch.”

Nor have we seen a team that has five players that can run the entire floor. In the second half, Nichols grabbed a rebound and raced up the court with the ball like he was Adrian Uter on a grainy YouTube video.

“They’re all guards, aren’t they?” Mihalich said.

We know we shouldn’t get too excited about this. It’s just one game, and all the clich├ęs and caveats apply about how it doesn’t guarantee anything. In the season opener three years ago, the Dutchmen recorded a raucous 89-71 win over Long Island, which ended up winning the Northeast Conference championship while Hofstra went 10-22.

But last night was beautiful for a fan base that is still quick to think the worst and which needed to see immediate proof that our unusual optimism was warranted.

For me, old habits were already cropping up just minutes after finishing my preview post, when I drove home from my mother-in-law’s and began analyzing the songs on the radio for a sign that the upcoming season would be better than everyone else thought.

I heard Cinderella’s “Shelter Me,” which comes from the same album as “Heartbreak Station,” which was the annual elimination song here way back when the CAA played its tournament in Richmond. It reminded me that I heard “Heartbreak Station” on the way to a home opener a few years ago. (No, I’m not weird, why do you ask)

So I figured this was a good sign, even if I was trying to avoid needing good signs. But to be safe, I changed the channel an hour or so later during our trip to the Arena, just in case Hair Nation and its absurdly limited playlist aired another Cinderella song.

Hours later, we got the best signs we could have envisioned. After the game, I saw Bernardi surrounded by kids who wanted his autograph. And Mihalich was besieged by adults who wanted to shake his hand, including a friend of mine who wrote me after the disastrous and heartbreaking 2012-13 season cost Mo Cassara his job and said he was done supporting the program.

He was vocalizing what a lot of us were thinking. But like a lot of us there Friday night, he found out it was easier said than done. As often as Hofstra tests our love affair with the school, the Arena in the winter remains our shelter. May it rock and roll this season like never before.

3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. Jacksonville, 11/14)
3: Brian Bernardi
2: Juan’ya Green
1: Andre Walker

3: Brian Bernardi
2: Juan’ya Green
1: Andre Walker

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