HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. – The recent stench emanating from the Hofstra University men’s basketball team was a strong one, both figuratively and literally.
After losing five straight to close out the first half of a conference schedule which included only two Colonial Athletic Association wins, both against last-place Towson (4-16, 1-9 CAA), the Pride (10-12, 3-7) was sorely in need of a fresh, clean start to the second half of it’s CAA season.
Frustrated by his team’s poor play, Hofstra head coach Tom Pecora tried a new motivational tactic while seeking his first win in three weeks, since a 77-61 victory over Towson, on January 6th.
Pecora admitted, “We haven’t had practice gear in about a week because I got mad, and I said, they shouldn’t wear anything that says ‘Hofstra’ on their chest… we were starting to smell a little bit because they were wearing the same shirts.”
The perfect deodorant?
A home game with a much easier opponent on the slate.
Finishing a tough stretch of alternating home games and road contests which included three separate trips to Virginia and a fourth to Philadelphia, Hofstra’s losing streak came against five of the CAA’s top six teams, by an average of 12.4 points.
“We looked at the schedule as soon as it came out and we went, ‘Wow, what a January that’s gonna be.’ We had hoped to come out of it better than we did… the opponents we were playing were all upper tier teams… now we’ll get some home games, and the students are back, and the crowds will be better, and we can go on the road… with a little more confidence… not as many long trips.”
So, it was great timing for the unpredictable, eighth-place North Carolina-Wilmington Seahawks (7-14, 3-7 CAA) to pay a visit to the Mack Sports Complex on Wednesday night, and help Hofstra dash some cologne on its poor first half within the conference.
UNCW, which entered the game with four consecutive road losses, while dropping five of six overall, had surprisingly played better teams very tough on the road, winning at one of the CAA’s upper echelon teams (William & Mary) by one point, and losing two-point games at Virginia (second-place in the ACC), and at Richmond (a solid Atlantic-10 squad this year).
However, when their perimeter shots don’t fall, the Seahawks have also shown a tendency to be run out of the gym, as was the case before a crowd of 2,525 fans at Hofstra, which saw the Pride lead wire-to-wire in a thorough 93-54 domination of UNCW.
It was such a rout, the Pride’s first half total of 54 points –- the most in Pecora’s nine seasons as Hofstra’s head coach -– matched the Seahawks’ total for the game.
Pleased with his team’s perimeter defense, Pecora said of the Seahawks, who missed their first seven shots from behind the arc, “They can put four three-point shooters on the floor at one time, and they [only] shot 3 of 17 from three.”
Hofstra meanwhile, started hot, making seven of its first 10 shots from the field, as junior forward Greg Washington (14 points, 7-12 fg) led the way early, scoring six of the Pride’s first seven points.
Washington was one of five Hofstra players to score in double figures, the first time that happened for the Pride since five starters scored all of Hofstra’s points in a 77-66 upset win over then-25th ranked George Mason, on February 23, 2006.
The early start gave the lanky 6-foot-10 forward as well as his team, some much-needed energy at both ends of the floor. “Once I get the first shot,” Washington said, “I want to keep going and going and that helps me defensively, [and], it gets the team going.”
Joining Washington in double figures were junior guard Charles Jenkins (24 points), senior guard Cornelius Vines (15 points), freshman forward Halil Kanacevic (14 points off the bench), and freshman point guard Chaz Williams (11 points).
Pecora is hopeful that his team’s selfless play will carry over for the rest of the season. “If it was a game where one or two guys got 30 or 40 [points],” he said, “I don’t know if our confidence would rise as much as it would now, by us sharing the wealth… I think that’s important for this group.”
A jumper by senior guard Johnny Wolf (the only Seahawk in double figures, with 14 points), pulled UNCW to within 11-7, 5:07 into the game, but Hofstra scored the next 13 points, nine from three-point range (on a pair of three-pointers by Vines and a trey by Jenkins).
Hofstra extended that run to 23-2, capped by the first-ever six-point play and only eight-point trip that Jenkins could remember in all of his years of playing basketball, whether at the college level or prior.
Jenkins, who had his most efficient game of the season (leading all scorers while making 7 of 9 shots from the floor and 9 of 10 free throw attempts), scored his second straight basket on a fast break layup, to put the Pride up 28-9, with 9:21 left in the half.
Junior guard Jeremy Basnight was called four an intentional foul as Jenkins hit the floor hard after making the shot.
UNCW head coach Benny Moss was then called for a technical foul, after which Jenkins sank all four free throws for the whistles on both Basnight and Moss. Jenkins followed the foul shots with a running jumper to complete the personal eight-point possession while scoring his tenth straight point, giving Hofstra a commanding 34-9 lead, with 9:16 remaining in the opening half.
From there, Hofstra coasted. Washington’s putback gave the Pride its biggest first-half lead, 54-22, before a Wolf three-pointer made it 54-25 by halftime. Only six missed free throws (Hofstra was 13-19 in the opening half) kept the Pride from posting a 60-point first half.
Four Hofstra players (Jenkins, 16; and, Washington, Vines, and Kanacevic, with 10 each) reached double figures in the opening 20 minutes.
The lead grew to as much as 42 points on three different occasions in the second half, as Hofstra won by easily its largest margin, while recording its highest point total and shooting its best percentage (57.7 percent) from the floor, this season.
Pecora’s teams have always been about defense first, but he was encouraged by the offensive improvement against the Seahawks. “I was weened on defense and rebounding,” he said. “But, the most important statistic is offensive field goal percentage… offensively, we got better spacing, and we opened the floor a little bit.”
Still, there was plenty to like about the defense and rebounding.
Hofstra limited UNCW to just 33.3 percent (18-for-54) shooting while junior guard Chad Tomko (0-4 fg), who entered the game as UNCW’s leading scorer (14.3 ppg), was held without a point for just the second time in 86 career games, and for the first time this season.
Meanwhile, the Pride outrebounded the Seahawks, 41-30, led by Washington and Kanacevic tying each other with a game-high eight rebounds apiece. The two also combined for all of Hofstra’s 14 blocked shots, 10 of which came from Washington, to tie a school record. “That’s a very impressive statistic,” Pecora said.
Perhaps an even better number is the 170 career blocks for Washington. He now needs just nine more to break the 27-year-old school record of 178, set by David Taylor (1979-83).
Though Jenkins, Kanacevic, and Williams have developed as the core of Hofstra’s team, Pecora knows that Washington will have to expand that core by one more key piece for the remainder of the season.
“Gregory is the key to everything we do,” Pecora said. Before the game, Pecora told Washington, “Let’s play like the old days, like you were playing early in the year and late last year.”
Pecora added of his other more experienced players, “We’ve got to get those veterans playing… and taking ownership of this team. I think they had lost their confidence and I was surprised by that. It just goes to show you, [that] you can play a game on Saturday and be down 30 in the second half [at Drexel, in a 75-62 loss] and four days later, be up 30 in the second half.”
“That felt good,” he said earlier. “We haven’t had one of those, it feels like, in a hundred years. I’m happy about it. We’re back home, hopefully we can build off that. We have another home game on Saturday… we have to be consistent and we have to play at a high level the rest of the way.”
Pecora (146-123 at Hofstra), who with the win, tied Frank Reilly (1947-55), for third place on the all- school list for head coaching victories, continued to work on that even with his best player, during the waning moments of his team’s easiest win.
“During a timeout in the second half, I was getting into [Jenkins]… “I still want you to stay aggressive,” Pecora told one of the conference’s leading scorers, with Hofstra up by more than 30 points. “That’s got to be your mindset every minute you’re on the court… [because] we’re still working on becoming a better team.”
Jenkins seems to have gotten the message. On breaking the losing streak, and admiring his team’s resiliency, he said, “It feels very good. Coach always tells us that tough times don’t last and tough teams do.” But, Jenkins also understands that, “Tomorrow it’s… back to business.”
He also now realizes what it means to earn the right to wear those new, clean Hofstra practice shirts again. “We’re not just playing for each other, we’re playing for Hofstra,” Jenkins said.
Said Pecora, “They get their practice gear back… practice won’t stink tomorrow, in one sense, anyway.”