I don't think this will stay a Billy Joel thing, but who knows?
Were Mondays weird for you for the first few weeks following the Flying Dutchmen’s CAA Tournament title game loss to UNC Wilmington? It took until May or June for me to look at the calendar on a Monday—or specifically the clock on a Monday night—and not think, hey, so many weeks ago right now, we were getting our hearts ripped out of our chests.
It was like recovering from a bad breakup. Sure, I’m sitting here weeping to Patty Smyth and Don Henley, but it’s been so many weeks ago since I bottomed out. The further away I am, the stronger I get.
Why *sniff* can't we *sniff* win a CAA title? *honk*
Except this was the bad breakup that was always going to yield a reunion, albeit one that would come with specifications to ensure a less rollercoaster relationship.
We were not going to go through what we endured last year, when the Dutchmen were preseason favorites and too many wins were accompanied by agony and every loss accompanied by fury. That’s no way to operate for fans of a mid-major with a 15-year NCAA Tournament drought, especially a fan who spends the baseball season talking Mets fans off a ledge.
This year would be far calmer. The Dutchmen were picked sixth—too low, if anything—but it’s much enjoyable to conjure up scenarios in which they could exceed expectations and finally win the CAA than it is to wonder how it will all fall apart. It would be much easier to avoid the type of emotional breakdowns that could tinge with regret any sort of championship celebration.
The relationship this year will be less frenetic and bipolar. Which is a great idea in theory, except the Flying Dutchmen are as crazy as ever, as evidenced by Friday night’s 74-72 win over Coppin State.
A largely new team—there were three new starters in the lineup and 102 of the 200 minutes were accounted for by players who did not suit up last season—followed last year’s script by coming back from an 11-point deficit to edge the Eagles. The Dutchmen won five games last season in which they crawled out of double-digit holes.
I’m pretty sure no Dutchmen team has ever won a game in which it had one player go 0-for-9 from the field (Brian Bernardi) and another go 0-for-8 from the free throw line (Rokas Gustys). I’m pretty sure no team ever has won a game like that.
“It just so happens everything that could go wrong went wrong in that first half,” Joe Mihalich said afterward. “They got going a little bit, had some things go right. The basket got big for them, they made shots. The game had loss written all over it and our guys wouldn’t let that happen.”
But Bernardi was perfect from the line — four of his six free throws came in the final 95 seconds — and Gustys tied a career-high by pulling down 23 rebounds in the type of performance that no longer carries with it the adjective “whopping” because he does it so damn often.
The two mainstay holdovers from last season were aided by depth the Dutchmen did not have last season. Eight players, including new starting point guard Deron Powers (12 points and five assists in 34 minutes) saw at least 14 minutes apiece for the Dutchmen, who got 14 minutes from eight players just once — against Division II Molloy — in 2015-16.
“Whole new team,” Mihalich said. “Last year we had to just hope that Juan’ya wouldn’t get tired or hurt or get in foul trouble. Three other guys like that, too.”
A game-tying 9-0 run around the middle of the second half included seven points by reserves Desure Buie and Hunter Sabety, who began the spurt with a dunk and helped end it with a block that led to the equalizing 3-pointer by Buie.
“We don’t win the game without all those guys,” Mihalich said. “What Hunter did was unbelievable. He energized the team.”
And as they did last season, the Dutchmen relied on a guard with the clutch gene to carry them over the finish line. Except this time, Juan’ya Green was in the stands watching true freshman Eli Pemberton score 20 points — the most by a freshman in his debut since redshirt Antoine Agudio racked up 20 points in the 2004-05 season opener — and pretty much ensure the Dutchmen’s dreams of an unbeaten season would last until at least game no. 2.
Pemberton scored 13 points in the final 9:07, and every basket — three 3-pointers and a pair of traditional buckets — put the Dutchmen ahead. The outburst came after Pemberton earned his way into Mihalich’s doghouse earlier in the second half.
“This man—let me say it again, this man—handled it, came out and was the best player on the floor for the last 15 minutes,” Mihalich said. “Big shot after big shot after big shot.”
Coppin State, which evoked memories of last season’s shootouts by scoring 21 points on its final 19 possessions, hit its share of big shots and had a chance to tie the game when Buie fouled Dejuan Clayton on a 3-point attempt with under three seconds remaining.
But Clayton only hit one free throw and the Eagles could not get a shot off after he missed the third attempt as the Dutchmen won in a game in which they trailed by 11, in which they led for just 13:13 and in which their best shooter went 0-for-8 from the line and their best player hit as many free throws as you and I.
“If it raises eyebrows, it’ll be because we only won by two,” Mihalich said. “We don’t care. We know we’ve got to get better. I know this team’s going to get better. Can’t wait to play the next game.”
Us neither. Buckle up. The Flying Dutchmen are going to drive us crazy, but we wouldn’t want them any other way.
3 STARS OF THE GAME (let’s see if this sticks this time)
3: Eli Pemberton
2: Rokas Gustys
1: Deron Powers