Thursday, February 19, 2009

Hofstra 99, James Madison 96 (Or: It’s times like these, time and time again…)

They were two throwaway lines, the first of which I actually threw away, that would prove to summarize one of the very best games ever played at Hofstra University.

I didn’t like how long the original title to Wednesday’s blog looked, so after a few hours, I returned to the admin and ditched the sentence “I don’t want to oversell it, judge for yourselves.” I figured what was left was more than enough to indicate the urgency and potential impact of the game.

As it turned out, even my intentionally overwrought headline did not oversell what happened Wednesday, when the Flying Dutchmen outlasted James Madison, 99-96, in a double overtime classic that was equal parts exhilarating, exhausting and euphoric. And, oh yeah, lifted the red-hot Dutchmen into a tie for fourth place in the CAA with two games left in the season.

The second throwaway line was the first sentence of the post, an easy way to get right to the point and an excuse to link to a favorite song. It ended up also serving as the appropriate soundtrack for a game that had the potential to be great and ended up being so much more than that, more for what it represented than for what transpired.

As compelling as the game was, it won’t be our Woodstock. Today, tomorrow, next week, next year—this won’t be one of those games in which 10,000 people swear they crammed into an Arena that can barely hold half that. It’ll remain the little secret of the 2,816 who were in attendance, all of whom will smile at the recollections and remember how this game reminded us why we fall in love with sports in the first place.

Sports unfairly test and exploit our devotion, especially once we hit adulthood and find ourselves wondering why we invest so much time in something in which we have no control and why we keep coming back even though the people who run the teams and play the games so often treat us like we’re idiots.

Quite frankly, we keep coming back because the world sucks and we want a diversion, no matter how foolish it may seem. We keep coming back because we remember how pure the games once seemed and we hope to recapture that feeling.

We keep coming back for the occasional night like Wednesday, when the routine becomes transcendent.

Madison was missing Andrey Semenov due to illness and lost starters Devon Moore and Dazzmond Thornton to injuries within a three-minute span in the second half, yet it made up an eight-point deficit in the final 7:49 of regulation despite making no substitutions and scored 51 points overall in the final 17:30. All 96 of its points were scored by six players. Juwann James, who has missed multiple games this season due to a heart condition, shrugged off a pair of collisions in the paint and played 36 minutes off the bench.

Hofstra was missing Greg Washington due to illness, lost Greg Johnson to a shoulder injury on the first possession of the second half and saw three post players (Arminas Urbutis, Dane Johnson and Darren Townes) foul out during the overtimes. Yet the Dutchmen, susceptible to Wall Street-sized shooting slumps, shot a season-best 53.8 percent, scored 32 points in the overtimes (they’ve scored 32 points or fewer in a half 29 times this year) and finished one point shy of the program’s first 100-point effort since Feb. 29, 1992, one day after Charles Jenkins turned three years old.

Many a season has been ruined when the future of a program becomes the present at the expense of the guys whose careers are mostly in the rear-view mirror, but the precocious duo of Jenkins and Nathaniel Lester were complemented by seniors Zygis Sestakos and Darren Townes, each of whom has been out of the rotation for extended periods of time this year. Jenkins had one of the all-time box scores (32 points, a career-best 13 assists, seven rebounds and a team-best four steals) and Lester (22 points and 11 rebounds) had a double-double two minutes into the second half.

Townes shattered his previous season highs with 15 points (on 6-of-7 shooting) in 39 minutes while Sestakos hit three 3-pointers in the second overtime, the first two of which tied the score and the last of which gave the Dutchmen the lead for good. Sestakos set career highs with 19 points in 43 minutes. He played 33 minutes and scored 12 points over a 13-game span from Dec. 20 through Jan. 31.

In the end, the last of the 195 points was the first for the Dutchmen’s Mike Davis-Saab, who sat the entire second half and the first 9:27 of overtime before he was pressed into duty by the mass DQs. And the last of the 124 shots was taken by Madison’s Scooter Renkin, who sat for the first 49 minutes and 57.5 seconds before he hoisted his first 3-point attempt of the season.

Renkin’s shot fell harmlessly to the floor, finally ending a game as pure as it was deceptively simple. It was one of 101 Division I games Wednesday and one of the dozens of off-the-BCS-path contests played in obscurity without a broadcast crew in the joint and only a handful of reporters typing away on press row.

It was no frills: Just two well-coached teams brimming with cohesion, chemistry and resiliency, playing themselves to exhaustion and beyond and rewarding everyone in the building. In times like these, who can ask for anything more?

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