Sunday, March 8, 2015

We don’t sleep, we dream

Well, it’s too late to turn back now. It was one thing to get in the car Friday afternoon and drive roughly 227 miles over nearly five interminable hours, all the while finding promising signs on the radio that made us imagine what it’d be like to have to figure out a way to get back to Baltimore if the Flying Dutchmen made it to Monday night.

(Have I mentioned we have to go back Sunday night? I’ll save that story. It’s a good one)

But to actually see the Dutchmen rout James Madison 74-57 in the quarterfinals Saturday afternoon? We could say all the right things about simply being satisfied in getting to the semifinals for the first time since 2011, or about the challenge that awaits the Dutchmen in today’s semifinal game against William & Mary.

We could even just heed the words of Moussa Kone, the lone four-year member of this year’s Dutchmen roster, who boiled Saturday’s win down to its most basic form.

“Means we can stay here and not go home,” said Kone, who continued playing like a senior trying to stave off going home for good by leading the Dutchmen with 18 points and 11 rebounds.

But no. It’s too late for caution, too late for tempered optimism. We are all damn in. All or nothing.

That’s how good the Dutchmen looked Saturday, when they dominated a James Madison team that outscored Hofstra by 29 points over the final 61:02 the two teams played against each other in the regular season.

On both ends of the court, this was a clinic in a coach realizing what didn’t work the first two times, and players implementing adjustments.

The Dutchmen took almost as many 3-pointers (61) as shots from inside the arc (64) in the regular season games against James Madison but drained just 19 from long range.

“First time we played them, we shot a lot of threes,” Ameen Tanksley said. “We got into that rhythm of just chucking threes and trying to find a way to make them.”

On Saturday, the Dutchmen were 7-of-20 from 3-point land but a whopping 24-of-33 from inside the arc. Kone set the tone on the first basket of the game, when he put back a miss by Juan’ya Green. Kone and Rokas Gustys finished with 29 points, on 14-of-18 shooting, and 16 rebounds in 40 minutes as the Dutchmen outscored the Dukes 46-28 in the paint and dominated the second chance points by a 25-12 margin.

Tanksley had 16 points on just 5-of-15 shooting, but a pair of individual 5-0 runs sparked the decisive turns of momentum in each half. In the first, Tanksley’s five straight points tied the game at 20-20 and began a 19-4 run that gave the Dutchmen the lead for good. In the second, his five straight points spanning the midway point of the half extended the lead to 13 points and started a game-ending 23-14 run.

Defensively, the duos of Kone and Gustys and Dion Nesmith and Malik Nichols ensured a far better outcome than in the regular season games. James Madison shot better than 50 percent (49-of-97) in the first two contests but just 37 percent (20-of-54) on Saturday.

After allowing James Madison to shoot better than 50 percent (49-of-97) in the regular season games, the Dutchmen held the Dukes to 37 percent shooting (20-of-54). Ron Curry, who torched the Dutchmen for 45 points in the regular season, had 18 points but was worked to exhaustion, a la Charles Jenkins in 2011, by the combination of Nesmith and Nichols.

“Our battle cry all week was we had to be a better defensive team,” Joe Mihalich said. “I thought, clearly, we were.”

Most encouraging of all, the Dutchmen played with poise and purpose that was often missing this season. A miserable first half at the free throw line—the Dutchmen were 3-of-10 from the so-called charity stripe—kept the game closer than it had to be.

James Madison whittled a 13-point deficit to six in the final 3:20 of the first half, during which the Dutchmen missed six of their final seven shots, including three putbacks in the final three seconds. But the lead never fell below eight following Kone’s layup to begin the second half, when the Dutchmen shot 56 percent (15-of-27).

“Today, toughness showed through,” Mihalich said. “We haven’t been tough every game this year, and that’s on me. But we certainly were tough today.”

You bet everyone else noticed. The buzz downstairs at the Royal Farms Arena was over the danger the Dutchmen could pose over the next two nights. We spent much of the game with some William & Mary fans, who acknowledged they’d rather see James Madison win.

Nobody took more notice of what happened Saturday than the Dutchmen themselves.

“We don’t think we should have had as many losses in conference,” Tanksley said. “As coach said, every game, we didn’t come out playing hard. I believe if we came out playing hard every game. we would have had two losses. At most.”

Now we begin to believe the Dutchmen can hand out two more losses in the next 40 or so hours. Even blinded by newfound belief, we know William & Mary didn’t trail for a second in sweeping the Dutchmen in the regular season. The Tribe have the Player of the Year in Marcus Thornton and the Defensive Player of the Year in Terry Tarpey.

William & Mary played terrific defense of its own in a 72-59 win over Elon earlier Saturday and played like a team that knows its window of opportunity to end the 322-year NCAA Tournament drought slams shut after this season.

But we also know the Dutchmen lost the first game this season to William & Mary by 21 points, and the second by two points. We know Juan’ya Green scored “just” 10 points on Saturday, though he added eight assists. We know the Dutchmen won by 17 on a day in which Brian Bernardi was scoreless from 3-point land until the final minute.

As good as Saturday was, it can get better. It will get better, today. Sure, such an approach sets us up for heartache, and for the agony of realizing just how long a road it is to get back to a chance to even play for a berth in a conference title game.

It’s OK. We’re willing to take that risk.

“It’s a very good team,” Mihalich said of William & Mary. “There’s a lot of things we have to do—how much time we got? [A reporter] wants to know how to beat William & Mary. I need a good 45, 50 minutes.”

We’ll take 40 today. Then 40 more tomorrow. It’s too late to turn back now.

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