HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. – The overachieving Hofstra Pride men’s basketball team has even surprised itself, as the squad led by senior Charles Jenkins (Springfield Gardens, NY) and first-year head coach Mo Cassara unexpectedly sits atop the conference standings at the halfway point of the Colonial Athletic Association standings.
Yet, even for a team which has become used to exceeding expectations this season, the Pride’s latest win – rallying for an exhilarating 92-90 overtime victory over CAA rival James Madison (15-6, 5-4) before 2,324 fans at the Mack Sports Complex on Monday night – provided another revelation about the grit, determination and growth which has thus far propelled Hofstra (14-6, 8-1) to this point in the season.
Like the early part of season, which saw the Cassara regime stumble to a 1-3 start with only a lone win over Division III Farmingdale State, much looked lost for the Pride against JMU on Monday night.
The team that lost two head coaches (one to another head coaching job, another to a drunken driving charge), two all-CAA rookie starters (who subsequently defected to other schools), and another key player to an injury during the offseason blew early leads of 7-0 and 13-5, and led just 17-16 with 10:44 left in the opening half.
A three-pointer by junior guard Mike Moore (14 points, 7 rebounds) pushed Hofstra’s lead back to 22-16, just 1:01 later. But, the Dukes closed the half on a 25-6 run to lead, 41-28, at halftime, and JMU extended that margin to a game’s largest advantage, 43-28, just 27 seconds into the second half.
Leading the way for JMU to that point were senior forward Denzel Bowles (team-high 27 points, 10 rebounds) and junior forward Julius Wells (23 points), who combined to outscore Hofstra themselves in the first half (Bowles scored 15 points and Wells had 14 points before halftime).
Bowles gave the Dukes a 52-38 lead on a jumper with 14:47 left, but freshman guard Shemiye McClendon (14 of Hofstra’s 16 bench points) scored three points before and after Jenkins (game-high 35 points, 11-19 fg, 11-13 ft) scored five points during an 11-0 Hofstra spurt that pulled the Pride to within 52-49, with 11:22 left in regulation.
However, four different Dukes scored during a 17-9 run, to push JMU’s lead back to 69-58, with 6:34 remaining in the second half.
Hofstra though, began to move the ball nicely to get right back in the game again. Senior Australian point guard Brad Kelleher (10 points, team-high 5 assists, 1 turnover) made a three-pointer and a pair of free throws, and then nice skip passes by Moore and Kelleher on consecutive three-pointers by Jenkins and McClendon highlighted an 11-2 Pride run which cut the Dukes’ lead to just 71-69, with 3:33 left in the half, forcing a JMU timeout.
The Dukes would twice build a five-point lead, but two free throws from Jenkins and a layup by Moore pulled Hofstra to within 76-75, with 1:16 remaining in regulation.
Russian sophomore forward Andrey Semenov (10 points, 8-8 ft, off the bench) hit two free throws to extend JMU’s lead to 78-75 with 53.4 seconds left in the half, but a nice swooping layup along the right blocks by Kelleher trimmed JMU’s lead to 78-77, with 38.2 seconds left in the half.
Sophomore guard Devon Moore (13 points, game-high 8 assists) made one free throw but a lane violation by Semenov denied Moore a second attempt, and JMU led 79-78.
McClendon then made two free throws to tie the game, 79-79, with 17.6 seconds left in regulation.
Devon Moore drove along the left blocks looking for a game-winning basket, but sophomore guard Yves Jules (Brooklyn, NY), who only played four minutes, and whose only box score contribution was a single steal, typified what Cassara has been preaching to his team about the little things it takes to compete for a conference title.
Jules stripped Moore and time ran out, sending the game to overtime, with Hofstra riding momentum.
“I don’t think anybody in [the media room after the game] probably thought we’d be 8-1 [in CAA play] right now, including myself,” said Cassara. “But, this team is coming together as a group and as a family, and we believe in each other. One thing I’m really proud of is our bench is [mentally] into the game every game, and that’s the type of stuff that’s going to continue to help us win games…Yves Jules who didn’t play a lot of minutes, comes in and plays three great defensive possessions for us.”
Nicknamed “The Jury Box” by his teammates, Jules, who averages just 8.4 minutes per game, helps set the defensive tone in practice for the Pride.
We call him the “Jury Box” because he locks up with his defensive ability. He gets us going all the time and all his stuff starts on defense.”
That was an area that needed considerable improvement after halftime for Hofstra to be able to rally to victory. “I think we got complacent on defense,” Cassara said about his team’s ability to take “The Jury Box’s” cue and lock in defensively after Hofstra built its early lead.
But, a switch from an earlier zone defense helped turn things around. JMU shot 48.5 percent (16-for-36) from the field in the opening half, but just 37 percent (10-for-27) from the floor in the second half.
“The one thing we have to do is switch our defenses, said Cassara, “and once we did that, [it helped us] win. We went to man-to-man and that really helped us.”
In contrast to JMU, the Pride caught fire after halftime, outscoring JMU 51-38 in the second half and 13-11 in overtime. Hofstra shot 53.6 percent (15-for-28) from the field after shooting 41.9 percent (13-for-31) in the first half.
A free throw and jumper by Jenkins, a three-pointer by McClendon, and a couple of free throws by Moore sparked an 8-1 Hofstra run that gave the Pride a 90-83 lead with 2:05 left in the extra session, but JMU scored the next six points on a three-pointer by Wells and a three-point play by Bowles, to cut the Pride’s lead to 90-89, with 53.1 seconds left in the game.
That’s when another freshman off of Hofstra’s bench, forward Stephen Nwaukoni (Queens, NY), came through for the Pride.
Like McClendon in the final seconds of regulation, Nwaukoni coolly hit a pair of free throws to extend Hofstra’s lead to 92-89, with 4.6 seconds remaining.
Cassara was especially proud that his two freshmen came through with the poise of upperclassmen in such big spots.
“You have two freshmen,” he said. “One hit two free throws at the end of regulation and one hit two free throws in overtime. I tell our guys every day in practice, free throws are going to win us [games].”
It was no accident that the two freshmen stepped up, especially Nwaukoni, whose effort was noted by Jenkins, an extremely hard worker himself.
“He’s always here an hour early, shooting free throws, working on his game,” Jenkins said of Nwaukoni. “Before he took those free throws, I told him, you worked too hard not to make these.”
Getting to the foul line was a particular point of emphasis for Cassara during intermission. “I jumped on our guys at halftime and told them [that] we only had one free throw in the first half,” Cassara said.
Actually, neither team shot many free throws in the first half (JMU was 3-for-5, Hofstra was 0-for-1), but the Dukes ended up 25-for-33 at the foul line, making 18 of 21 free throws in the second half. The Pride sank 15 of 16 second-half free throws and finished 21-for-23 at the foul line.
Rather than rely on a defensive stop, Cassara then elected to put the Dukes on the foul line. McClendon immediately fouled Wells near midcourt with 3.9 seconds left.
Wells made the first free throw, but missed the second. Jenkins pulled down his third rebound and time expired, giving Hofstra its third straight win following its only conference loss of the season.
Continuing the usual tradition after each home game, an appreciative Jenkins and his teammates visited the Lion’s Den, the Hofstra Student section behind the basket near the opposing team’s bench. “If my arms were big enough, I’d give the whole student section a big hug,” said a smiling Jenkins.
The contributions of senior forward Greg Washington (Centereach, NY) — who had 13 points and game-highs of 11 rebounds and 5 blocks – and the Pride getting Bowles running and fatigued helped Hofstra down the stretch.
“Greg Washington deserves a ton of credit,” said Cassara. “He just did a great job [defending Bowles down the stretch]. And, the one thing we wanted to do was get [Bowles] up and down the court and I think you saw in the last three or four minutes [of regulation] and in overtime, he was kind of laboring a little bit, and our plan worked.”
Cassara called the victory “a great win,” and said, “I’m just so proud of the way our guys hung in there.”
If half-year conference awards were given out, the first-half CAA Coach of the Year would undoubtedly go to Cassara, yet the rookie Division I head coach remains humble and hungry to make his team better.
“I’m a work in progress very much like [my players],” he said. “But, they believe in what I’m telling them and what our staff is telling them, and that’s half the battle. Once they believe in it, I think we can continue to execute even better.”
The key to Hofstra’s success to this point in the season has been focusing on the present rather than dwelling on all that the Pride had to overcome since last season.
“We have every excuse not to be successful,” said Jenkins, who once again played before several NBA scouts on Monday night. “We had all the odds against us. We’ve got a first-year head coach who lost all these players and we had all these things happen in the offseason, and our ability to just let everything go and just play basketball, is just starting to show… our guys are really buying in and playing hard.”
Jenkins’ second-highest scoring output of the season places him just 35 points shy of the Hofstra all-time scoring record of 2,276 career points (set by Jenkins’ former teammate Antoine Agudio, two years ago).
But, personal accolades have never meant much to Jenkins, the nation’s third-leading scorer and the country’s current active career scoring leader. Instead, his primary goal throughout a brilliant college career has been to get his team to the NCAA tournament.
“More importantly, my team is winning,” he said.
So, how satisfying has the winning been for a team that was picked fifth in the CAA and which is the only non-traditional CAA power that is currently positioned for a first-round bye in the CAA tournament with three other perennial CAA mainstays?
“I can’t say it’s satisfying yet,” said Jenkins. “We have a long way to go. If you ask me that question in March, maybe I’ll have a different answer.”
The next step toward finding that fulfillment will be a first-place showdown at Virginia Commonwealth (16-5, 8-1) on Thursday at 7pm ET, before Hofstra returns home to The Mack against Drexel, on Saturday at 4pm ET.