HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. – As a Hofstra alum, yours truly has attended many Hofstra University basketball games over the past two decades, whether as a Hofstra student, a returning alum with season tickets, or in more recent years, with a media credential (the latter been tough, since rooting isn’t tolerated at press row).
There have of course, have been many games on the Hofstra campus over that time, that were much bigger than the Pride’s non-conference meeting with the Wagner Seahawks at the Mack Sports Complex on Friday night.
But, for this Wagner, the matchup was personal.
Not only was it the 100th career game for senior guard Charles Jenkins, who maintained his pace to leave Hofstra as the school’s all-time leading scorer, but Friday’s game represented the all-important battle of Alma Mater vs. Namesake.
Okay, admittedly, I was pulling for the Hofstra Alma Maters all along, which is understandable, since Wagner (the writer) hasn’t followed Wagner (the college basketball team) that closely, while staying on top of just about every dribble of Pride, or Hofstra Flying Dutchmen, basketball since the early 1990’s.
Although, perhaps I should have been more in tune to the Namesakes (2-2) for a few reasons (shame on me for not).
For one, they’re headed by basketball royalty, including first-year head coach Dan Hurley (who helped build the legendary St. Benedict’s Prep, in New Jersey, into one of the top high school programs in the nation), and his older brother Bobby Hurley, the former St. Anthony’s high school (N.J.) and Duke University star who once had a promising NBA career as the seventh overall pick in the 1993 draft, until a bad car accident helped to eventually derail his professional career much too soon.
The older Hurley is now an assistant coach to Dan Hurley with Wagner, as is Luke Murray, the son of actor and comedian Bill Murray, who was rooting on his son, behind the Namesakes’ bench on Friday night.
One other big reason to have paid more attention to the Namesakes, is witnessing another New Jersey product, 6-foot-1 freshman guard, Latif Rivers (from Elizabeth, NJ), who tried to almost single-handedly shoot down the Alma Maters, with an impressive 28-point night on 6 of 10 shooting from three-point range (6 of 13 overall) and a perfect 10-for-10 performance at the foul line.
But, of course, the Alma Maters (2-3) have Jenkins (last year’s Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year), and unlike his team’s previous three games (all losses in the Puerto Rico Shootout), Hofstra’s best player received the help he needed up front in a thrilling 67-63 victory before 2,542 fans in attendance.
You might say Hofstra won with rebounding from three players, including Jenkins (though his version of rebounding wasn’t done on the glass).
While senior 6-foot-10 forward Greg Washington had yet another disappearing act, the young forward duo of sophomore David Imes and freshman Stephen Nwaukoni were the prefect compliment to Jenkins, who scored 17 of his team-high 19 points in the second half.
Washington played only 15 minutes, scoring just four points and committing as many fouls, while failing to grab a rebound.
But, both Imes (14 points, 17 rebounds) and Nwaukoni (10 points, 13 rebounds) reached double figures in scoring and rebounding for the first time in their college careers, to give the Alma Maters their first multiple-player double-double game since forwards Dane Johnson and Darren Townes accomplished the feat on January 17, 2008, against conference rival George Mason.
Without their contributions, not even Jenkins could have come close to saving the night for the Alma Maters, as he did in the second half.
Together, Imes and Nwaukoni accounted for 30 of the Alma Maters’ 38 rebounds, as Hofstra held a 38-33 rebounding advantage over the Namesakes.
That proved to be huge, because in a game that came down to the final seconds, the Alma Maters dominated the Namesakes in second-chance points, 19-5.
While Imes and Nwaukoni were doing that, Jenkins (who had just 1 actual board), rebounded in a different way.
After a brutal start, in which he managed just two points on 0-for-7 shooting from the field (including 0-for-6 in the first half), Jenkins made 6 of his final 7 shots from the floor, to rally the Alma Maters.
Why the slow start for Jenkins?
“That wasn’t me, that was Thanksgiving Charles,” he joked.
“[Wagner wasn’t] doing anything [defensively, to stop me], that was just me,” Jenkins said. “I was excited to get back on the floor [after the losses in Puerto Rico], and I was trying to make plays when they weren’t there. As soon as I got in the locker room, [head] coach [Mo Cassara] told me to relax and play my game, and that’s what I did in the second half.”
How dare you!
Sure, after all you’ve done for the program, you’re entitled to a bad half the night after a big Thanksgiving meal, and you did ultimately lead your team to victory with a superlative second half.
But Charles, this was for bragging rights, Alma Maters vs. Namesakes!
And, as much pride (no pun intended) as Wagner (the writer) has in his surname, the Alma Maters needed you from the start.
Well, since it is a day after Thanksgiving, Jenkins is forgiven for the first half, and thanks are instead given, for Jenkins’ second half.
Or maybe, it was all part of the plan. Let the Namesakes lead at the half, which they did, 35-28, but make sure the Alma Maters win the game.
Brilliant! So once again, on the day after Thanksgiving, thank you, Charles! Nice idea.
From a much different coach’s perspective without a namesake at stake, Cassara of course, didn’t see it that way, yet he remained confident that his team would come back after halftime.
“I told our guys at halftime, we gotta calm down a little bit, take a deep breath, relax,” Cassara said. “We’re in the game, we’re gonna chip away at this thing.”
The Alma Maters shot just 32 percent (8-for-25) from the floor compared to the Namesakes’ 44 percent (11-for-25), including a perfect 4-for-4 by 6-foot-11, West African freshman center Naofall Folahan, who was limited to an ineffective 0-for-1 from the field in the second half, by Imes.
“He’s bigger than me,” Imes said of Folahan, “But I’m stronger, so I just [had] to use my body to get him out of the paint as much as possible.”
Imes’ 6 points and 11 rebounds and Nwaukoni’s 5 points and 7 rebounds in the opening half kept the Alma Maters in the game, but as Cassara noted, “In the first half we missed a couple of [defensive] assignments. In the second half, I thought we really did a good job. We contested a lot of shots… also in the first half, we just missed a lot of free throws, and in the second half, we made some free throws, and ultimately, it closed the gap.”
The Alma Maters had to shoot free throws well in the second half to keep pace with the Namesakes, who made all ten of their free throws after going 9-for-13 from the foul line in the opening half.
In comparison, Hofstra made 12 of 15 second-half free throws and 21 of their final 24 after missing their first seven.
Cassara also told the Alma Maters at the half, that the second half would be a great test for a team that he said “was feeling sorry” for itself after Puerto Rico, one that Cassara was happy his team passed. “We have to learn how to win,” he said. “We took a step forward tonight,” he said.
The biggest step toward Friday night’s victory was Jenkins getting back to his old self after halftime.
With Hofstra trailing 42-34, more than four minutes after the Namesakes took the game’s largest lead (at 40-30), Jenkins made six consecutive shots and scored 15 points during a 26-12 run that gave the Alma Maters their biggest lead, 60-54, with 4:15 remaining.
During the run, after another Rivers three-pointer brought the Namesakes to within 45-41, with 10:56 left, Jenkins reeled off nine straight Hofstra points to keep the Alma Maters in front.
“He made some real big shots for us,” Cassara said of Jenkins. “We knew Charles, at some point, was going to get going. He just needed to get a little bit of a rhythm.”
When Jenkins finally did miss again, coming up short on a runner in the lane, Imes was there to rip the ball out of the hands two Namesake defenders, and follow with a huge layup to extend an already-slim Alma Mater lead to 64-61, with 1:07 to go.
Junior guard Tyler Murray (14 points), by way of Toronto, then turned the ball over, but nearly tied the game on a shot which most in the building thought was a three-pointer.
Receiving the ball off of a steal and a quick push ahead, Murray buried a left-corner jumper with 18.5 seconds left. But, he didn’t get both feet behind the three-point line on a two pointer that pulled the Namesakes to within 64-63.
Cassara saw the play clearly. “I actually saw his feet,” he said. “I thought they called it a three, and I knew it was a two. I did see his foot on the line. I had a really good angle on it.”
Perhaps it was destiny, so the Alma Maters could prevail.
Jenkins then made two free throws, to give the Alma Maters a 66-63 advantage, with 14.7 seconds left.
With a great name like Wagner though, you knew the Namesakes wouldn’t go down without a fight, and they almost tied the game again, in the final seconds, as Rivers came off of a curl and had a good look at a right-wing three-pointer.
But, Rivers’ attempt fell short, and order triumphed.
Nwaukoni secured yet another rebound and made one of two free throws with 4.7 seconds left, to end the scoring, as the Alma Maters grabbed the offensive rebound after Nwaukoni missed the second free throw. The Alma Maters had won!
Cassara appreciated both Imes and Nwuakoni growing up before his very eyes. “For David Imes to go out there and get 17 rebounds and for Stephen Nwaukoni to get 13 rebounds, that’s really just a tribute to how hard they work,” the proud couch said.
It was obvious that the two overcame the lack of confidence that sometimes comes with inexperience.
Imes said, “[My] coaches said that I need to start asserting myself and [be] more aggressive. I took that as, this [was] my opportunity, why not go out there with some confidence and see what I could do?”
“My first couple games, I was nervous,” Nwaukoni admitted. “Today, I was just really happy that I performed well and did what I had to do.”
He also noted, “I know that when [Washington] is in foul trouble… I have to step up and rebound. Coach told me that I have to go out there and rebound, and that’s exactly what I did.”
To which the elder statesman Jenkins added, “That’s a very good answer, Stephen.”
And, Cassara chimed in, “That’s your first official answer. We’re proud of ya.”
In the end, it was a perfect night.
The Namesakes won a half, and the Alma Maters took the game, with their star playing the role of the main hero, in an exciting contest that went down to the wire.
Now, with my middle name of Jay, if I can just get the City University of New York Athletic Conference’s John Jay College to drop the ‘h’ for one night and see that team travel to Staten Island, to play Wagner.
Then, I could cover the Jon Jay-Wagner game.