Saturday, January 14, 2012

Postgame Buffet: Northeastern 64, Hofstra 62 (Or: Only missed by a fraction)

Right now, Dutch Nation (snort) is despondent.

I knew the Flying Dutchmen were totally toasted with less than a minute to play Wednesday night, when the above song started playing during a timeout at Hofstra Arena. I mean, I get the intent—the message is all about seizing the moment and all that good stuff—but as the video tells us: Right now maybe we should pay attention to the lyrics.

And right now, a missed beat keeps haunting the Flying Dutchmen, who lost to Northeastern, 64-62, in the year’s first Barone Bowl to fall to 0-5 in the CAA. To quote a Boston-based band (which is what I usually do here), it’s the same old song and dance for the Dutchmen, who have lost their five CAA games by a grand total of 26 points, by far the fewest of any team to start 0-5 since 2001-02. Here’s the postgame buffet that was delayed by work and not a two-day mourning period. Really.

1.) Once again, defensive breakdowns at the end cost the Dutchmen. Except this just wasn’t a matter of allowing a handful of baskets in the final couple minutes, a la against James Madison and Florida Atlantic. The Dutchmen squandered a pair of seven-point leads by allowing Northeastern to score on an amazing 17 of its final 20 possessions over the final 12-plus minutes, and that counts Jonathan Lee missing a free throw with 4.6 seconds left. So Northeastern basically ended the game by scoring on 17 of its last 19 possessions. Tough to win when that happens.

“If you told me tonight we were going to hold them to 64 points, I really would have thought we would have won the game,” Mo Cassara said afterward. “We went in some stretches again where our offense wasn’t clicking and our defensive intensity and focus let down.”

2.) That wasn’t the case at the beginning of the game, when the Dutchmen suffocated Northeastern into missing its first eight shots, kept the Huskies scoreless through their first nine possessions and carried a shutout into the first media timeout. But after falling behind 9-0, Northeastern went on a 12-0 run to grab the lead and begin a game-ending stretch in which it shot a mind-boggling 23-of-42 from the field.

“We’ve been talking about it the last few days, really the last few weeks, what I call multiple effort,” Cassara said. “I think we do a really good job defending maybe one action or two actions, but then we relax for half a second, we get beat or we’re a step slow. We had two times where we had a 3-point lead and we gave up a 3-pointer and a 3-point play where we got beat to the basket. We can’t have that happen. It’s hampered us all year. We do a good job of an initial five, 10, 15 seconds sometimes, then we have a breakdown at the very end.”

3.) The breakdowns weren’t limited to the defense. The Dutchmen had a seemingly solid offensive game, shooting 60 percent in the second half, and an even 50 percent overall while putting three players into double figures. Mike Moore (nine points) and Dwan McMillan (eight points) each finished a basket away from making it four or five players with at least 10 points. Moore, who is battling a lingering groin injury, had a career-high five assists and continually looked to get teammates involved while McMillan had seven assists and just two turnovers.

However, the Dutchmen got just five points from their bench as Shemiye McLendon, Moussa Kone and Stevie Mejia combined for just five field goal attempts. David Imes was 5-of-7 from the field, but one of his misses was a dunk. And while Stephen Nwaukoni continued his breakout performance in CAA play with 10 points, nine rebounds, three steals and two blocks, the one shot he missed was a thunderous dunk attempt just before the first half buzzer that nearly resulted in a Darryl Dawkins moment (Google it kids!). Nathaniel Lester had another big second half, during which he scored 14 of his team-high 19 points, but he stepped out of bounds with five seconds left to basically end the Dutchmen’s hopes.

“Go back to the end of the first half—we do a great job running a play, we send two guys to the offensive glass, two guys trying to dunk the ball and the ball comes out,” Cassara said. “Right now it’s one bounce for us, it’s one play. That’s how fine our margin for error is. Unfortunately we’re doing some good things. We just haven’t been able to finish them off.”

4.) Once again, Nwaukoni’s performance threatened to get lost in the haze of another gut-wrenching defeat, but he is rapidly evolving into a legitimate post presence for the Dutchmen. His ceiling at one point seemed to be that of someone who could absorb minutes, but with 38 rebounds in his last four games and an improving offensive skill set, he’s starting to look like a legitimate CAA big man and someone who could contend for a rebounding title in his final two seasons.

“Stephen’s giving us great energy, he’s keeping a lot of basketballs alive and doing a great job around the basket,” Cassara said. “Really did a good job on post defense tonight. He’s continuing to improve and we need him to do that.”

5.) This was the Dutchmen’s fourth CAA loss by six points or less and their third by two points or less, which statistically makes them the best team to open CAA play 0-5 since the conference expanded (only one of the other 11 teams to open 0-5—William & Mary last year—lost its first five conference games by less than 50 points). But this might have been a season-crushing defeat.

As tough as it was to lose to James Madison and the Humpty Hitchens Experience and as tough as it was to lose by one point to Delaware after never leading, losing to Northeastern at home by two points—after leading for more than 13 minutes in the second half, becoming the first team to score 40, 50 and 60 points in a low-scoring game and losing even though they never trailed by more than three points—might be more than this or any team could bear, especially with a treacherous stretch coming up. How’s this sound: at Old Dominion today, Drexel Wednesday, at James Madison next Saturday, at VCU Jan. 23, George Mason Jan. 25, at Northeastern Jan. 28. Gulp.

While he spoke optimistically as usual Wednesday night, Cassara looked spent as he sat slumped at the podium. “It’s frustrating to lose anytime, and I think it’s especially frustrating for these guys and our staff and our team when we’ve been stringing some good practices together,” Cassara said. “Our intensity and our focus has been good. We’ve remained positive. And like I’ve said, we’ve lost three league games by five total points, So sure, it’s frustrating.

“But we have to continue to move forward. I [said] in the locker room, the great thing about being a basketball player: We get to play again in a couple days and the great thing about this league is we have another great opportunity in two days.”

Right now, that doesn’t sound so great.

3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. Northeastern, 1/11)
3: Stephen Nwaukoni
2: Nathaniel Lester
1: Dwan McMillan

Mike Moore 35
Nathaniel Lester 23
Dwan McMillan 14
Shemiye McLendon 9
Stephen Nwaukoni 8
David Imes 8
Stevie Mejia 3
Bryant Crowder 2

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