HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. – When a team is struggling, a coach might try almost anything to change his squad’s luck.
Or, in the case of head coach Mo Cassara’s game night wardrobe choice, it’s sometimes better to change nothing at all.
The Hofstra Pride may be a mediocre 6-7 so far this season, but Cassara’s suit is a perfect 4-0 after his team forced 18 first-half turnovers, built a 19-point second-half lead, and held on down the stretch for a surprising 83-75 upset victory over the Iona Gaels (10-3) before 4,258 fans at the Mack Sports Complex on Thursday night.
After a 2-1 start to the season, the Pride lost six of its next seven games. Hofstra’s only win in that stretch was ten-point victory over talented Cleveland State (12-2), during which Cassara sported a dark gray suit with a white shirt and yellow tie.
Some coaches go back to the drawing board after results like that.
Cassara however, consulted his closet, and out came the same ensemble for Hofstra’s next two games – a 20-point domination of Binghamton and a 23-point thrashing of Colgate, each at home.
Naturally, Cassara went back to his strong suit again, this time, to beat Iona, the preseason Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference favorite.
“I’ve worn this suit the last three games,” a relaxed Cassara confessed after the win. “I actually wore it for the Cleveland State game. Same socks, same shoes, same shirt. I’m actually excited to get it dry cleaned because that means we’re starting to play pretty well [again].”
Hofstra did, on Thursday night, to the dismay of Iona, which came out flat and sloppy, committing a season-high 23 turnovers, 18 in the opening half, when the Pride held a 17-6 advantage in points off turnovers to build a 43-28 lead by intermission, after closing the final 8:32 of the half on a game-turning 21-6 run.
The Pride scored the first four points of the second half to extend its advantage to a game-high lead of 47-28 (matched twice later) on a jumper by senior guard Mike Moore, who rebounded from a poor 1-for-6 start from the field, to finish 8-for-17 from the floor (including 4-for-9 from three-point range) and lead all scorers with 24 points.
Unlike in some of the Pride’s losses this season, Moore this time, had enough help, especially from a pair of players – senior guard/forward Nathaniel Lester and junior forward David Imes – whom the Pride had counted on as being the second and third scoring options to Moore, but who had largely disappointed this year.
Eclipsing 13 points for just the third time this year, Lester added 21 points (14 in the second half) on 7-of-13 shooting from the field and ten rebounds, and Imes (16 points, game and season-high 15 rebounds) finished well above his season averages of 6.2 points and 5.2 rebounds per game.
Cassara knows he’ll need that type of production from his forwards if Hofstra is to continue its turnaround, and he’s hoping that a win over the Gaels this year will have the same effect that a humbling 25-point loss was to Iona exactly a year ago.
“Last year at Iona was a turning point for us,” Cassara said. “From that point on, we played very well for the rest of the season.” In Cassara’s rookie year as a Division I head coach last season, the Pride went on to its highest finish (tied for second place) in the Colonial Athletic Association.
This time, performing so well against Iona might be just what Imes and Lester needed to help Hofstra get hot again.
“It’s a big confidence booster,” Imes said. “I needed that.”
Lester, who entered the game shooting just 36.9 percent from the field for the season, added, “Seeing the ball go through the basket helps [my] confidence, it puts confidence in my teammates, and [can] help us get on a roll.”
Senior point guard Dwan McMillan also outplayed former high school (St. Benedict’s Prep, NJ) teammate and Iona star Scott Machado (who entered with 14.3 points and 10.4 assists per game).
With junior point guard Stevie Mejia sitting out for the fifth time in six games with an injury, McMillan played the entire game, scoring ten points, handing out nine assists, and committing four turnovers.
Machado meanwhile, scored just five points and committed a game-high six turnovers despite posting a game-high ten assists before fouling out with 2:37 left.
The Pride maintained as much as a 13-point lead until Harlem, NY product and University of Arizona transfer Lamont “Momo” Jones, who scored 16 of his team-high 20 points in the second half, helped keep Iona in the game. The Gaels closed to within seven points on five separate occasions in the final 7:46, but could get no closer.
Both Jones and head former C.W. Post (Division II) head coach Tim Cluess (who was passed over by Hofstra when the Pride hired Cassara) each admitted that some Iona players were more concerned about their families and friends in attendance, and finally getting to play near their own New Rochelle, NY campus again, after a starting a road swing 6-1, at mostly much further locales than Hempstead.
“We didn’t come out ready to play,” Jones said. “I think we were too happy to be [near] home, not really taking this game as we would have, naturally, on the road [further from home].”
Cluess added, “I knew we were in a little bit of trouble when it became more about tickets for the game than about the game itself.”
He also thought his team was complacent from its earlier season success and some resulting media publicity, while praising Hofstra.
“I thought they played a heck of a game right from the get-go,” Cluess said. “They came with more energy than us, [and] they played harder than us, right from the start. It looked like it meant more to them than it did to our guys… I think our guys were drinking the Kool-Aid a little too much… way too many second-chance opportunities. I think 45 of their 83 points were handed to them.”
The first-year Division I head coach was referring to Hofstra 26 points off of turnovers, 13 second-chance points, and six fast break points. In contrast, the Pride gave the Gaels 33 easy points, including 18 points off of 16 Hofstra turnovers and ten fast break points, but just five second-chance points.
Powerful star senior forward and Bronx native Mike Glover (20 points on 9-for-11 shooting from the field), who scored six of Iona’s first ten points on three dunks, chimed in on the intensity shown by the Gaels’ opponents, saying, “I think they were very hungry.”
Reflecting on his team’s other big win this season, Cassara said, “Probably on paper, the two best teams that we’ve played this year are Cleveland State and Iona, RPI-wise, record-wise, everything-wise, personnel-wise, and we’ve beaten both of them, so we certainly have the capability to be very competitive.”
As for the lucky suit?
Cassara didn’t say if he’d wear it for Hofstra’s next game, on Monday night at 7 pm ET, when Hofstra (0-1 CAA) hosts last year’s Final Four participant Virginia Commonwealth (10-3, 0-1 CAA), as the calendar turns to 2012 and the schedule focuses exclusively on conference play (except for a February non-conference Bracketbuster game) for the remainder of the regular season.
Being able to wear a lot more post-victory smiles however, would suit Cassara just fine.
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Notes: In attendance, were well-known WFAN (New York) sports radio talk show host Mike Francessa (opposite the Hofstra bench) and to the left of the Iona bench, along the west baseline, former NBA player Wally Szcerbiak (who starred at nearby Cold Spring Harbor high school) and his father and ex-ABA player Walter Szcerbiak.