HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. – An early season, non-conference matchup between a pair of struggling, nondescript, New York college basketball teams expectedly didn’t generate much interest, as evidenced by the small gathering of just 1,239 fans who witnessed the Wagner Seahawks’ 52-44 win over the Hofstra Pride at the 5,023-seat Mack Sports Complex on Tuesday night.
For this writer however, the game was big – a second chance to cover what was to me, the all-important battle of my namesake (Wagner) versus my school (as a 1994 Hofstra graduate).
The first time around, a little more than two years ago, produced a well-played contest with an exciting finish and a desired outcome for myself and the rest of the Hofstra community.
This time, the Namesakes won out over the Alma Maters in a meeting that was far more difficult to watch, and the reason for that had less to do with the fact that my last name beat my university, but more so, because of the often sloppy, poor level of play, thanks in part to the Pride lacking two former starters who had been playing well.
That is, until sophomore guard Shaquille Stokes and freshman forward Jimmy Hall, along with reserve guards Dallas Anglin and Kentrell Washington, were all dismissed from Hofstra for allegedly deciding that free rides to the school on athletic scholarships weren’t enough of a gift, and decided to help themselves to various electronic items from fellow students’ dormitories over a recent one-month span.
Shamefully, it’s not the way I’d like to see basketball players representing the school that gave me a degree compete for the team lead in steals, and it’s the type of thing that makes a follower of the Pride feel anything but proud.
Like everyone, I was badly fooled into thinking that Hall, the Pride’s second-leading scorer (12.7 points per game) and top rebounder (9.4 rebounds per game) and Stokes (10 points and 2.6 assists per game) were a pair of decent kids who might help lead Hofstra to a surprisingly good season.
I even said as much about Stokes, after interviewing him – and learning the story of a young man’s desire to come back home to be with his ill grandmother – following his dramatic game-winning three-pointer, which he made right in front of me, on November 16th.
Apparently however, Stokes and his three co-horts, in their suspected burglary ring, believed to have been carried out prior to Hofstra’s season opener, hid a far different tale from the rest of us, until they were arrested a little more than a week past Thanksgiving.
Cleary and sadly, the quartet of assumed criminals was not thankful for the opportunity to play Division I college basketball while receiving a fully compensated education.
And, with that serving as a disappointing backdrop, my next Namesakes-Alma Maters battle gave way to even further dissatisfaction while viewing some downright poor offensive basketball.
While statistics don’t always give a full picture in basketball or in sports, these do:
Consider that Wagner (3-4), which despite shooting 28.9 percent from the floor, won 38-36 at North Carolina Central ten days earlier, won a road game at Hofstra (3-6) despite having three starters shoot a combined 1-for-18 from the floor. The Namesakes also made just 32.1 (17 of 53) percent of their shots from the field, including 11.1 percent (1-for-9) from three point range, while managing a mere five assists and committing 16 turnovers – including a game-high seven by their leading scorer, redshirt junior point guard Kenneth Ortiz (15 points, three assists).
The main difference ultimately came down to free throw shooting. Though the Namesakes committed more fouls (22) than the Alma Maters (17), and only attempted one more (20-19) free throw, they made 17 foul shots, while the Alma Maters made an abysmal eight from the foul line, where they shot an embarrassingly low 42.1 percent.
When a team shoots free throws even worse than Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard, it’s a bad effort.
Individually, no Hofstra player was as inaccurate as Howard on the same night, but collectively, the Alma Maters were worse than Howard’s performance as the Houston Rockets employed their Hack-A-Howard tactic, and saw Howard finish just eight of 16 from the free throw line to help the Rockets rally from a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit and beat Howard’s Lakers by two points.
An early bright spot for the Alma Maters came from senior guard Matt Grogan, who with seven points, matched the career high he set in Hofstra’s previous game, a 26-point home loss to SMU.
After the teams traded 4-0 runs to each score just six points after as many minutes, an Ortiz layup gave the Namesakes a 14-10 lead with 8:33 left in the opening half.
Grogan then made his first couple of three-point attempts to highlight an 11-2 run and put the Alma Maters up 21-16, before they settled for a 24-19 halftime lead – at which point, I used the restroom and was happy that upon my return, my laptop was still located courtside, at the media table (you never know, given the reasons for the Alma Mater’s earlier player suspensions).
The jumpers were a nice moment for the rarely-used Grogan, who was pressed into action due to the sudden upheaval of the Alma Maters’ roster. But, it spelled trouble for the Alma Maters that a player who in his final year of eligibility, and who’s averaged just one point and less than nine minutes per game over his career, would be a team’s second leading scorer behind the 16 points scored by sophomore guard Taran Buie. Grogan attempted only one more three, and missed badly on an airball in the second half.
A lucky break off of a mad scramble for a loose ball that led to an Alma Maters layup, and a three-point play off of drive down the lane by Buie, on what should have been called a travel, were the only things that kept the Alma Maters from going scoreless in the second half until Buie later scored on a legitimate layup just 31 seconds before the mid-point of the half, to keep the Alma Maters within striking distance, down 36-31.
Almost singlehandedly, Buie, a Penn State transfer and now, his new school’s leading scorer, kept the Alma Maters in the game with 14 second-half points (matching his per game season average) to rebound from horrid first half, during which he made just one of seven shots from the floor, while missing both of his three-point attempts and all three of his foul shots.
Since the Wagner College name has no relation to my surname, I was happy to see Buie keep my university in the game, although in the wake of the depletion of the Alma Maters’ roster, I couldn’t help but think of Buie’s own suspension along with that of junior guard Jamal Coombs-McDaniel (a member Connecticut’s national championship team two years ago). The pair missed the team’s first two games this season for an undisclosed violation of team rules – all on the heels of promising six-foot-ten center Bryant Crowder, a Harlem, New York native and transfer (from the College of Eastern Utah) like Stokes, finding himself embroiled in serious off-court trouble and leaving the team last season.
The Alma Maters got within a point, 36-35, on a Buie three-pointer with 10:16 remaining, but were held off by a pair of shot-clock-beating baskets from Ortiz in the final 2:22, which each time, gave the Namesakes a five-point cushion before they sealed the win by scoring the game’s final four points, all on free throws.
Unlike the last time I saw this matchup, I suppose seeing my name beat my school made sense this year, since the Namesakes’ leading scorer and rebounder just about shares my first name, aside from an extra ‘o’ toward the end.
In a small way, that makes up for the fact that Stokes shares the last name with a former Hofstra great and one of my favorite Alma Mater players of all-time, Loren Stokes, who unlike the latest Alma Mater player to go by the name of Stokes, actually did lead positively by example, both on and off the court.
Wagner senior guard Jonathon Williams averages a team-high 15.3 points and 6.6 rebounds per game, even though he made just one of seven field goal attempts and grabbed a lone rebound in 23 foul-plagued minutes.
Also somewhat appropriate is the name of Williams’ hometown of Richmond, California, since the Alma Maters compete in the annual Colonial Athletic Association tournament each March, in Richmond, Virginia.
Williams’ atypical lack of production was picked up by sophomore forward Mario Moody, who scored ten of his 12 points in the game’s first 10½ minutes, to equal the Alma Maters’ total and give the Namesakes an early 12-10 lead, practically by himself.
After the game, I asked the Namesakes’ rookie head coach, Bashir Mason – who, at the age of just 28, became the nation’s youngest Division I head coach – what it was like to win at Hofstra as a head coach following the time he spent as a four-year starting point guard for longtime Alma Mater nemesis and fellow CAA member Drexel.
“I thought about that as I was walking off the court,” he said. “[Today, it’s] a completely different atmosphere. [We had] some brutal wars that we played here with Hofstra. I think five years in a row, our games either went to overtime or came down to a last-second shot, our last five times playing them… it felt good getting another win on this court.”
Leaning back in his chair while folding his arms and smiling proudly, Mason continued, “I did [help] snap a [Hofstra] 29-game home court winning streak here, as well.”
Mason’s smile turned to laughter when I flashed the name on my press credential and notified him that far more important than stopping that streak, was that he evened the score in Wagner-covered games between Name and School.