Tuesday, March 18, 2014

G’Day, Mates! Albany’s Australians Keep Stony Brook from Getting over NCAA Hump

STONY BROOK, N.Y. -- Perhaps the Stony Brook Seawolves will have some better luck next March, after they move into their newly refurbished Stony Brook Arena (formerly the USB Sports Complex) next season.

In terms of finally reaching the NCAA tournament, nothing else has worked thus far -- not the Seawolves’ America East Conference regular three season titles (2010, ’12, ’13) in four years; nor their recent three trips to the finals of the America East tournament (2011, ’12, 14); and not even hosting the league championship game on their home floor for the second time in three seasons.

Just as they did in the America East title game at the USB Sports Complex two years ago, the second-seeded Seawolves (23-10, 15-4 America East) came up a win short of reaching the Big Dance for the first time, while losing, 69-60, to the fourth-seeded Albany Great Danes (18-14, 12-7 America East) in the final men’s basketball game at Pritchard Gymnasium on Saturday.

Albany, meanwhile, after becoming the lowest-seeded team to win the America East tournament (as a four seed) last year, repeated the same feat while knocking Stony Brook out for a second straight season (the fourth-seeded Great Danes beat the top-seeded Seawolves by two points in the semifinals last year season, one year after Stony Brook did the same to Albany, with the schools seeded the same).

Late in the game, the Seawolves appeared to be in good shape, leading by six points, with the game’s high scorer, Albany’s Australian-born, junior forward Sam Rowley (18 points on 9-of-11 shooting), fouling out with 7:02 to play.

But while Rowley kept the Great Danes close to that point, fellow Aussie, sophomore guard Peter Hooley (15 points) -- the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player -- after a rough 2-for-13 start from the field, made his last two shots and scored seven points during a game-turning 15-4 run that gave the Great Danes the lead for good, 61-56, with 1:04 remaining.

Hooley led all scorers in the tournament with 71 points over three games, for a 23.7 per-game average to head an All-Tournament Team that included Rowley and senior point guard D.J. Evans (16 points, including 12 in the first half), as well as Stony Brook’s two sophomore New Jersey products -- guard Carson Puriefoy (13 points) and forward Jameel Warney (12 points, team-high 9 rebounds).

Senior forward Gary Johnson, who shot just 1-for-5, but who scored eight points while grabbing a game-high 10 rebounds, made six straight free throw attempts over a 24-second span in the final minute to seal Albany’s fourth trip to the NCAA tournament. Each of those appearances have come since 2006, as the Great Danes, who were the last America East team to win consecutive tournament titles (2006-07) did so again.

While head coach Will Brown (a Long Island native of nearby Miller Place, NY) was confident about his team’s hottest stretch (five wins in six games) of the season prior to tipoff, the lone loss in that period was in the regular season final for each team, when the Seawolves overcame a 10-point deficit to win by five points, thirteen days earlier.

A 9-0 Stony Brook lead did nothing to keep Brown’s self-assurance at a high level, but after he a called timeout, Brown’s players restored his faith by scoring the next 10 points to ignite a 20-5 run that put moved Albany head, 20-14, just past the midpoint of the opening half.

“We know it’s a long game.” Rowley said. “One run does not make a game. That obviously wasn’t the way that we planned on starting the game, but we knew that our shots were going to fall, that we were going to find a rhythm and that happened within the next few minutes.”

Brown added, “I had four or five Stony Brook fans come up to me and say, ‘Coach, thank you for beating Vermont. Thank you!’ I bit my tongue and inside I’m thinking, ‘Say that to me after this game.’ We weren’t happy to be here. We came here to win. These kids [and]… my assistants prepared like champions… we were ready and we wanted this badly.”
Dave Coley (nine points, eight rebounds), a senior guard from Brooklyn, NY, scored on a layup to cap a spurt of seven straight Seawolf points, to put the home team up, 21-20, before Evans reached his 12th point with a left-wing 3-pointer to regain the lead for the Great Danes, 23-21.

Rowley later broke a 27-27 tie before Hooley (3-for-7 from 3-point range) made his first shot from behind the arc, to give Albany a 32-27 lead.

Down 34-31 at halftime, and 38-34, after another Rowley jumper almost five minutes into the second half, the Seawolves scored 10 consecutive points -– half of them by Puriefoy-- to lead, 44-38, with 11:29 left.

However, the Great Danes answered with the next eight points -- half by Rowley -- to go back up, 46-44, less than three minutes later.

Yet in a game of runs, the Seawolves came back with eight straight points -- five from Puriefoy -- to lead, 52-46.

During that stretch, Rowley fouled was called for his fourth personal foul, with 8:07 to go. Just 1:05 later, he fouled out while battling for a loose ball off of a missed 3-pointer by Hooley.

That’s when Albany, in an intimate and hostile environment, without Rowley, and with history on Stony Brook’s side, dug deep, especially defensively.

The Seawolves’ next field goal didn’t come until more than 5½ minutes later, when Puriefoy answered a tough layup through traffic by Hooley by hitting a jumper with 1:30 left, to keep Stony Brook within 58-56.

On the next trip, Hooley drained a right-wing 3-pointer that gave the Great Danes a five-point lead and some breathing room.

Free throws by Johnson provided the next four points, to extend Albany’s lead to 65-56, in the final minute, and the Seawolves -- which shot just 28.1 percent (9-for-32) in the second half after making 54.2 percent (13-of-24) of their shots in the opening frame -- never got closer than seven points thereafter.

Earlier, senior center John Puk scored six of his eight points while no one else scored for the Great Danes.

Puk tied the game, 52-52, on two free throws, then made a tough turnaround jumper for the right blocks off of a right corner entry pass from Evans, to knot things up again, at 54-apeice, before he grabbed an offensive rebound, drew a foul, and made two more foul shots, to put Albany ahead to stay, 56-54, with 2:32 left.

Although teams hosting the America East championship game are 25-6, home teams have lost the past three title games in the league, with the Great Danes being responsible for two of those occasions.

Those weren’t the only difficult odds for gritty Albany -- which made 18 of 19 foul shots, including all 16 of its free throw attempts in the second half -- foul to overcome.

“My deli sandwich and my pizza that I’m going to eat on the bus ride home are going to taste so much better,” Brown joked “That’s what I miss about Long Island – delis, pizza, bagels. I don’t miss the traffic, but winning here is special because it was a championship and because not too many teams win here.”

Stony Brook finished 61-19 (.763) at Pritchard since moving back there in 2008, and the Seawolves had won 37 of their previous 40 games in the cozy 1,700-seat gym. However, including the title game loss to the Great Danes, three of the four losses in Stony Brook’s final 41 games at Pritchard occurred this season.

Trying to remain upbeat, Pikiell said. “I’m disappointed for our whole university… but it’s not our birthright. We’ve got to win that [championship] game… and it’s hard to get to this game, it’s hard to win it and you’ve got to play well.  And you’ve got to have a [day] where you’re making some shots. And we didn’t. We didn’t make the plays when we needed to.”

Pikiell felt most sorry for his seniors.

“They won 25 games last year, 23 games this year, [two years ago], they won 22.” He said. “It’s not good enough at this level… they’ve done a lot, but [the question will be about not making the] NCAA tournament. That’s the world we live in now, and I understand that. I take all the responsibility. It’s not those guys. Those guys are great. But [the NCAA tournament] is all anyone wants to talk about… you have to win this tournament. That’s how one-bid leagues are judged… we’ll keep getting back to this game. One of these days, we’re going to have one of those great days at the right time… Stony Brook’s good and we’re going to continue to be good.”

Graciously, Brown said, “I’d like to congratulate Stony Brook and Steve Pikiell on a tremendous season. I’ve got a lot of respect for Steve and how he’s built this program. He’s done it the right way, with quality kids and he’s got a great staff. One loss doesn’t change all he’s accomplished and what they’ve accomplished as a program… hopefully, they get an NIT bid, and if they don’t, they deserve to be playing somewhere next week.”

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Senior Night Success: Hofstra to Enter CAA Tourney After Rare Win

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- The veteran guidance of graduate transfer students Zeke Upshaw and Dion Nesmith, and senior forward Stephen Nwaukoni have helped freshman forward Jamall Robinson grow into a better player this season.

But when it came time to send Upshaw and Nwaukoni off of the Mack Sports Complex floor for a final time in style, Robinson paid them back.

Scoring 15 of his game-high (and career-best) 22 points in the second half, Robinson steered the Hofstra Pride (9-22, 5-11 CAA) to an 82-71 victory over the James Madison Dukes (11-19, 6-10 CAA) in the Colonial Athletic Association regular season finale for those teams on Saturday night.

Snapping a five-game losing streak, the Pride won for only the second time over a 12-game span since January 22 (when Hofstra earned an impressive 17-point home win over third-place William & Mary).

The Pride’s other win (61-52) in that stretch likewise ended a five-game skid, and was over North-Carolina Wilmington,  which also lost to Hofstra at home, 69-64, on January 15.

Those two teams will meet next on Friday night (with Hofstra as the eight seed and UNCW seeded ninth), in the first round of the CAA tournament in Baltimore (where Robinson will play in his home state of Maryland), with the winner to face top-seeded Delaware at noon the following day.

“We’re really happy to get this win,” said head coach Joe Mihalich, who was brought in after 15 years at Niagara to begin the process of resurrecting a program that had as many player arrests (six) as Division I wins last year.

While all of those players are long gone, Hofstra has continued to struggle record-wise but is once again on the right track. And the focus of Mihalich’s new team was in the correct place on Senior Night.

Mihalich said, “The battle cry was, ‘Let’s finish the season off the right way.’ We have a little mojo going into the tournament in Baltimore.”

With Robinson shining, Upshaw (18 points), Nesmith (12 points, five assists no turnovers) and Nwaukoni (nine points, game-high 13 rebounds) all did their parts, as did junior forward Moussa Kone and sophomore forward Darren Payen, each of whom added eight points on efficient 4-of-6 shooting.

“We got a lot of contributions from a lot of people,” noted Mihalich, who while calling Robinson’s game “terrific,” said, “It was great that our seniors did something so special. Stephen had 13 rebounds and Zeke… I don’t know he does it, he just keeps scoring points.”

Russian graduate forward Andrey Semenov (17 points), sophomore guards Ron Curry and Charles Cooke (15 points each) and freshman guard Jackson Kent (10 points) gave JMU good balance among the Dukes’ starting five, but that quartet combined for all but 14 of its team’s scoring.

For a while, that was working out well for JMU, which after trailing, 9-4, and missing seven of its first nine shots, made its next six field goal attempts (and at one point, scored nine straight points), to lead, 22-17.

That spurt came without Nesmith (who unlike Upshaw, still has one year of eligibility remaining), after the transfer from Northeastern and Monmouth picked up two fouls within 21 seconds and went to the bench for the rest of the half, with Hofstra up, 12-11, and 13:58 left before halftime.

Fortunately for Mihalich, he has versatile 6-foot-6 sophomore Jordan Allen (five points, five rebounds, game-high six assists), who can play small forward as well as run the point when Nesmith is out.

In that role, Mihalich also relied on Robinson, who said of his big game, “It felt great,” while adding, “I just stepped my game up a little bit more. Coach just challenged me to play more of a point guard position, so I took it as a challenge to play the best I could.”

After Robinson tied the game, 26-26, on a jumper, and Payen, the same, at 28-28, the Dukes used a 7-1 run to go ahead, 35-29. But the Pride countered with the next eight points, to lead, 37-35. Half of those points during the run came from Upshaw, who after scoring half of Hofstra’s first 14 points, went 10:35 without scoring.

Cooke, who led all scorers with 12 first-half points, made a 3-pointer with 4.3 seconds left in the half to give the Dukes a 41-39 edge at the break.

JMU was like a different team from the floor after that point, shooting just 24.2 percent (8-for-33), after making 60.9 percent (14-for-23) of its shots in the opening half.

Such a drastic change, Mihalich thought, was a result Pride’s better effort. “More of an intangible than an X’s and O’s thing,” he said. “I felt we had a little more passion, a little more energy. Our transition defense was better as well.”

The teams traded consecutive runs of seven straight points, as the Pride moved ahead, 52-46, only to see the Dukes regain the lead, 53-52.

Another 7-1 spurt put Hofstra up, 69-62, with 5:17 left, before the Pride pulled away late.

Two free throws by Cooke brought JMU to within 70-66, with 3:04 remaining, following a key block by Nwuakoni 52 seconds earlier, but Hofstra scored the next four points, as Robinson sank a pair of free throws to give the Pride a 74-66 advantage, with 1:03 left.

Including those two free throws, Hofstra scored its final 10 points at the foul line. Nesmith and Upshaw each made two foul shots over that period, and Robinson the other six, including two that gave the Pride a comfortable 80-71 edge, with 36.7 seconds to go.

A four-time CAA Rookie of the Week, Robinson especially thanks team leaders like Upshaw and Nwaukoni for his aiding in his early success.

“They helped me a lot,” he said. “They always pulled me aside and say something to me… they always keep me underneath their wing, so that’s a big help.”

Robinson added, “My teammates are always getting on me about being confident when I play. Sometimes, I kind of play tentative because I’m a freshman, but I think as the season started going along, I started getting out of that.”

If he continues to do that, Robinson will have many bright spots before he experiences what Nwaukoni and Upshaw did on Saturday.

“It was a very emotional moment [for] me and Zeke,” Nwaukoni said. “ It was a great experience. It’s my last home game. Why not leave it all out on the court? I just came with the mentality before the game, [to] just go all out as soon as I stepped on the court. That’s exactly what I did.”

For Upshaw, it was even more special because of his road to get there.

Unlike Nwaukoni, who was recruited by Hofstra and spent his whole college career there, Upshaw took advantage of a new NCAA rule to go from Illinois State -- where he scored a total of 100 points while playing sparingly over three years -- to finishing his last regular season as the CAA’s second-leading scorer, with 19.6 points per game.

“At Illinois State, I did my best to just keep my confidence up and this year has definitely helped me do that,” Upshaw said. “[The NCAA rule] means everything because without that rule, I wouldn’t be here. I’m definitely supportive of that rule a hundred percent.”

“I think it’s a great rule,” Mihalich added -- a candid admission that drew much laughter from the press room.

Finally given a real chance to show his abilities, Upshaw greatly appreciated the entire night and the season, even through 22 losses.

“It was amazing,” he said. “The amount of people that came out to show support [tonight], it was great. I can’t even describe how good it’s been, and credit to Coach and my teammates for believing in me. This is the best year of my life… and we’re not done yet.”

Both Mihalich and Nwaukoni share that confidence, with the Pride’s coach pointing to close losses in Hofstra’s three previous games.

“We just played the three best teams in the league,” Mihalich said. “Tie game with a minute to go against Delaware, down five, with the ball, 25 seconds to go against (second-seeded) Towson and then William & Mary, down two, with a minute to go. They’re the three best teams in the league and we were right there with them… we respect the heck out of everybody in this league, but we also know that if we play well, we can beat anybody.”

Still, Mihalich knows that any self-assuredness from a regular season sweep over UNCW needs to be carefully tempered by the difficulty of trying to beat a conference rival for a third time in the same season.

“Not to be hypocritical, but [that’s true] on both ends,” he said. “We’re not thinking about the fact that we beat them twice. We’re just thinking about that one game and play as well as we can… and if you can get one, you keep playing.”

Additionally, Hofstra’s lack of depth will become a major concern if the Pride is fortunate to advance. Yet Mihalich chose to take an optimistic approach with that as well.

“That would be a positive problem, if we have to worry about playing four games in four days,” he said, while also revealing Hofstra’s secret weapon in that regard.

“We have a terrific strength and conditioning coach, Brian Burke,” Mihalich said. “[He] does a fantastic job. These guys are in the best shape of their lives, and if we have to dig down deep a little bit, we will.”

As far as thinking that the Pride can win the CAA tournament and earn an automatic NCAA berth, despite its low seed, Nwaukoni isn’t quite ready to call it a career.

“We’re trying to take it all,” he said. 

“We’re trying to win the championship [and] go as far as we can. That’s the goal.”

CAA Men's Basketball Championship Schedule (at Baltimore Arena, Baltimore, MD):

First Round - Friday, March 7
Game 1:  #8 Hofstra vs. #9 UNCW, 7 p.m.

Quarterfinals - Saturday, March 8
Game 2:  #1 Delaware vs. Game 1 Winner, noon
Game 3:  #4 Drexel vs. #5 Northeastern, 2:30 p.m.
Game 4:  #2 Towson vs. #7  James Madison, 6 p.m.
Game 5:  #3 William & Mary vs. #6 College of Charleston, 8:30 p.m.

Semifinals - Sunday, March 9
Game 6:  Game 2 Winner vs. Game 3 Winner, 2:30 p.m.
Game 7:  Game 4 Winner vs. Game 5 Winner, 5 p.m.

Finals - Monday, March 10
Game 8:  Game 6 Winner vs. Game 7 Winner, 7 p.m.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Hot Curry Leads Warriors in Rout Over Knicks

NEW YORK -- The way Stephen Curry likes to play at Madison Square Garden, the New York Knicks are thankful the All-Star only visits there once per year.

Exactly one year and one night ago, Curry, one of the NBA’s best outside shooters, drained 11 of 13 shots from behind the arc while scoring a career-high 54 points -- but his Golden State Warriors lost to the Knicks, 109-105.

This time, there was no doubt, as Curry, leading the league in assists, put himself in some extremely rare Garden company. Needing just three quarters to post his third triple-double of the season, Curry led Golden State (36-23) to a 126-103 rout of New York (21-38) at Madison Square Garden on Friday night.

Although he scored merely half of the points he did the last time he played at MSG, Curry, with game highs of 27 points and 11 assists, and a team-best 11 rebounds, joined LeBron James as the only opposing players to post a 50-point game and a triple-double on the Knicks’ home floor.

Carmelo Anthony is one of three Knicks (along with Bernard King and Patrick Ewing) to accomplish the same feat. While he led New York with 23 points and 16 rebounds, last year’s scoring champion uncharacteristically missed 19 of 26 shots, including five of six from 3-point range.

“I knew when I had seven [rebounds], somebody mentioned it on the bench,” Curry said of being aware that he was closing in on his fourth career triple-double late in the third period. “Once I got the last one, I heard a couple rumbles in the crowd and I put two and two together… it’s pretty special. I hadn’t had a [triple-double] since my rookie year before this year started. I have three [this year] and hopefully some more left in the tank.”

Commenting on impressing the New York crowd again, a humble Curry remained team-focused. “It’s one of those arenas that you understand the history,” he said. “To get a win this year [unlike last year] is bigger than any [personal] stats [for me].”

Reserve guard Tim Hardaway, Jr. added 22 points, and usual guard J.R. Smith (starting at forward) scored 17, but the Warriors countered with plenty offense themselves. Curry’s backcourt mate Klay Thompson scored 25 points, 35-year-old reserve forward Jermaine O’Neal had 15, reserve forward Maurice Speights scored 12 and ex-Knick, forward David Lee, added 10.

Hurting the Knicks from both the interior and perimeter, Golden State held a 44-32 edge in the paint while Curry (in 11 attempts) and Thompson (in 10 tries) each made five 3s.  

Coached by another former Knick player, head coach Mark Jackson, the Warriors won for the fifth time in six games (all since the All-Star break) while rebounding from a blowout loss in Chicago two nights earlier. During that game, Golden State allowed the same 103 points as it did in New York -- but scored 43 fewer -- as Curry was held to a season-low-tying five points on just 2-of-10 shooting.

“We know we didn’t play our best in Chicago,” Curry said. “This was an opportunity to correct that and we did that from the start.”

Meanwhile, the Knicks, who completed their second 2-11 month of the season (the other was November) after going a far more respectable 16-15 over December and January, fell to a season-high 17 games under .500. They also allowed a regulation season-high in points, giving up just three points less than the 129 they allowed during a double overtime loss in Orlando a week prior.

Coming off of a 26-point defeat in Miami one night earlier, New York was outscored by 49 points over about a 26-hour period. The Knicks also fell six games behind Atlanta for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Setting the tone at the outset, Curry made three shots and assisted on an alley-oop dunk as the Warriors scored 10 straight points to lead, 15-6. Golden State extended that advantage to as much as 34-23 in the opening quarter before holding a 38-27 edge as the period ended.

A layup by O’Neal (who followed 37-year-old Vince Carter’s season-high 23 points at MSG on Monday night) pushed the lead to 43-27 less than two minutes into the second quarter. Although the Knicks responded with a 12-5 run to get within 48-39, a 3-pointer by Curry started a 22-10 spurt to close the half, and the Warriors led, 73-52, at halftime.

Giving up the most points it had in a half all season, while allowing Golden State to reach its season-high point total for a half, New York was booed off the court as an exasperated group of Knicks headed to the locker room.

That frustration boiled over for center Tyson Chandler six points, 12 rebounds), who got into a shoving match with Speights and was then ejected after picking up a pair of technical fouls within slightly more than a two-minutes span.

“It did for me, but I hope it doesn’t for the team,” Chandler said on being affected by his team’s disappointing season. “It was just me getting frustrated with everything that’s been going on. It had nothing to do with [Speights] and more to do about the season.”

Before that, the Warriors went up, 81-54. The Knicks scored the next 10 points, but four straight points by Curry capped a 14-4 run that grew the margin to 95-68.

New York ended the third quarter on a 12-4 spurt to get within 99-80 going into the fourth period, and a Hardaway jumper cut the lead further, to 105-89, with 8:27 left. But that was as close as the Knicks would get as Golden State coasted the rest of the way.

"It’s fine to think that you want to have that belief,” Smith said of the Knicks speaking as contenders all season while rarely being able to back that up. “If you can’t put it out there on the court, then it don’t mean nothing." It’s not a mental thing, it’s a heart thing. If you’re going to let people score 40, 50 points in the paint over and over again, you’re not going to win… we’ve got to stick up for ourselves. We’re letting [opposing teams] do what they want to do.”              

Unlike Smith, Anthony believes the Knicks’ struggles have more to do with execution than effort.

“I don’t think it’s heart,” Anthony said. “For me, it’s just the consistency, and that’s been all year long. As far as questioning the guys’ heart, I wouldn’t go that far. As a team, we’re not consistent in a lot of aspects.”

At least Curry has faith that New York can solve its issues before it’s too late, even with only 23 regular season games to go.

“It is very surprising,” Curry said of the Knicks’ record. “The amount of talent they have… I know a lot of things have not gone their way… but I’m sure they’ll figure it out… before it gets too far gone.”

But as long as how to do that remains a mystery for New York, head coach Mike Woodson will stay on the on the coaching hot seat.

Still, he too, continues to be positive. “I told everyone in the locker room that we still have a shot at it,” he said. “Somewhere along the line, we have to draw the line and figure out if we are committed to make the playoffs.”

Hoping to turn the page on another bad month, the Knicks will begin March with a three-game, Midwestern road swing that will start in Chicago on Sunday afternoon.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Shooter’s Touch: Mavs Edge Knicks on Nowitzki’s Lucky Buzzer-Beater

NEW YORK – With more than seven weeks still left in the NBA regular season, the New York Knicks have already lost far more than they ever expected to this season. But Monday night’s 110-108 loss to the Dallas Mavericks was their most disheartening defeat yet.

New York (21-36) rallied from a 14-point, second-quarter deficit to lead at the start of the fourth-quarter, and then scored eight straight points, in 46.7 seconds, to tie Dallas (35-23) at 108-apeice, only to lose when forward Dirk Nowitzki’s lucky jumper from just inside the top of the key glanced off of the backboard, bounced off of the rim, straight up and then through the hoop as time expired at Madison Square Garden.

Not only is the Knicks’ mark of 15 games below .500 a season-high, but New York, with 10 home games still remaining, already clinched a worse mark at MSG this year than its road record (23-18) last season. That comes long after the Knicks (12-19 at the Garden) lost any chance to match their 31-10 home record a year ago.

Wasted during New York’s third straight loss, and sixth in seven games, was a 44-point effort from forward Carmelo Anthony, whose 7-of-12 shooting from 3-point range was equaled by 37-year-old forward Vince Carter, who was one of three Mavericks to reach 20 points while leading Dallas with a season-high 23 points. The Mavericks’ scoring from their starting backcourt of Monta Ellis (22 points) and Jose Calderon (20 points) overwhelmed that of the Knicks, which produced only eight points each from guards Raymond Felton and Pablo Prigioni.    

Conversely, Anthony was essentially a one-man show, as the three other Knicks to score in double figures -- reserve guard J.R. Smith (15 points), center Tyson Chandler (12 points, 12 rebounds) and reserve guard Tim Hardaway, Jr. (10 points) -- complemented New York’s franchise player with only limited scoring help.

“This was a tough one,” Anthony admitted.

While winning its third straight game, Dallas built five-point leads three times in the opening quarter, the last time, 20-15, on a Calderon 3-pointer, before pushing that advantage to 31-19 on a Carter trey.

A 7-3 spurt to start the second period extended the Mavericks’ edge to a game-high 38-24, but primarily with the energy and defense of center Cole Aldrich (two points, three rebounds), who only played the final 8:21 of the first half (in place of Chandler), the Knicks stormed back with a 35-19 run to take their first lead (59-57) since they were up, 7-6.

Anthony capped the stretch with a pull-up jumper, but 11.3 seconds later, Ellis drilled a 3-pointer to beat the first-half buzzer, sending Dallas to the locker room, up 60-59.

An Anthony trey midway through the third quarter kept New York within 72-71, but two more 3s  by Carter keyed a 12-5 run that gave the Mavericks an 84-76 lead in the final minute of the period.

However, Anthony again brought the Knicks back, scoring the last six points (on three free throws and a 3-pointer) of the quarter over the period’s final 32.5 seconds, to trimmed Dallas’ lead to 84-82.

Smith gave New York its last lead, 85-84, on a 3-pointer 16 seconds into the fourth quarter, but consecutive 3s from Carter put the Mavericks back up, 90-85.

Prigioni 3-pointers twice (at 92-90 and 96-93) cut the gap to a one-possession game, but Dallas stayed up by at least four points until Anthony sliced the lead in half, to 103-100 on a trey with 2:43 left, following five Knick offensive rebounds on the same trip.

Calderon answered with a 3-pointer 48 seconds later, to double the margin to 106-100, and a layup by reserve forward Brandan Wright (12 points on 6-of-8 shooting) increased the lead to 108-100, with 1:37 remaining.

But just 10 seconds later, Felton scored on a layup, and after an Ellis turnover, Felton lobbed to Chandler who scored on a layup and completed a 3-point play with a free throw, to bring New York to within 108-105, with 1:12 to go.

Chandler then stole the ball from Ellis and passed to Felton, who Anthony up for a game-tying 3 with 50.3 seconds left, and after a missed 3-pointer by Carter, the Knicks had a chance to take the lead. But Carter forced Anthony to abandon his plans to take a jumper from the right wing and instead pass to Smith on the left wing as the shot clock was winding down.

“He lost the handle on the ball and got jammed, and couldn’t get his shot,” head coach Mike Woodson said of the play. “J.R. tried to get it off. I thought he was bumped, but we didn’t get the call.”

All Smith could do at that point was force a contested 22-footer that fell short as the shot clock expired, with 10.6 left on the game clock. On his follow-through, Smith was hit on the hand by Ellis, but nothing was called.

That set the stage for Nowitzki (15 points) who hit the game-winner over Anthony.

“I waited a little too long and by the time I looked up there was not enough time,” Nowitzki said. “It was definitely an ugly shot, but I am glad it went in.”

On trying to guard the shot, Anthony said, “I felt like I couldn’t do anything better. He hit a tough shot.”

He also admitted, “It’s like a needle popping a balloon. It sucks all the air out of you.”

It was the second time in three games that Anthony, the league’s reigning scoring champion and the NBA’s second-leading scorer this year, posted a 44-point game during a Knicks loss.

“You score 40, 44 and still lose,” a frustrated Anthony said at his locker. “You ask yourself, ‘Is it worth it?’ But I’ll keep doing what I do.”

Sitting 10½ games out of the Atlantic Division lead and six games off the pace for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, Woodson sounded as if he is starting to feel how the several close games his team has let get away this year could lead to his termination as New York’s coach by the season’s end, if not sooner.

“We have had quite a few games this year where we couldn’t get over the stretch,” Woodson said. “Guys are… not quitting. They are putting forth the effort, but unfortunately, things are not bouncing our way.”

Trying to take a more positive approach, Chandler takes it upon himself to keep his teammates’ head up.

“I keep encouraging them and not let them cave in,” he said. “If it means grabbing a guy’s jersey, looking them in the eye, and saying, ‘You can have it a lot worse. You’re playing the game you love.’ I won’t let them quit.”

Even that may not be enough at his point, though, for a team that continues it’s disappointing a tailspin, to the point where earlier in the day, it bought out the contracts of two players the Knicks thought were two key acquisitions over the summer (the signings of forward Metta World Peace and point guard Beno Udrih).

Four of New York’s next five games are on the road, beginning with a trip to defending NBA champion Miami, on Thursday night, before the Knicks fly back north to host Golden State the next night.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Deep Towson Overcomes Benimon Foul Trouble to Down Hofstra

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- Just as he’s done all season long, Jerrelle Benimon led the Towson Tigers in scoring and rebounding on Saturday. But it’s what Benimon’s teammates did without him which led second-place Towson (20-9, 11-3 in the Colonial Athletic Association) to an 83-77 victory over the pesky, eighth-place Hofstra Pride (8-21, 4-10 CAA) at the Mack Sports Complex.

Benimon entered the game as the Towson’s leading scorer (18.4 points per game) and rebounder (11.6 rebounds per game), while ranking fifth and first in the CAA in those categories, respectively, and leading the nation with 18 double-doubles.

Against Hofstra, Benimon, a senior forward transfer from Georgetown, added to that production with team-highs of 22 points and six rebounds. But after scoring 17 first-half points, he committed his fourth personal foul was benched with the score tied, 43-43, and 13:19 left.

By the time he returned, almost 10 minutes later, the Tigers were up, 67-54, and although the Pride got within five points in the final minute, a layup and three free throws by Benimon in the final 1:34 helped give the CAA preseason favorites just their second 20-win season in Division I and first in two decades.

Not bad for a program that lost a Division I-record 41 straight games while becoming the first team to finish a season winless in CAA play just two years ago.

Head coach Joe Mihalich -- whose team lost by a very similar score (81-77) on the same floor to first-place Delaware in Hofstra’s previous game -- said of Benimon and Towson, “As good as he is, [and] he’s terrific, it’s not a one-man team… we may have just lost to the team that’s going to win it all [in the CAA tournament]. Everybody’s got to figure it’s them and Delaware [as the tournament favorites]. ”

Making his first five shots to guide Towson to a 23-16 lead, after 10:32, Benimon finished the opening half 6-for-7 while the rest of the Tigers went just 4-for-16.

Yet with Benimon playing just nine minutes and shooting just 1-for-3 after halftime, his teammates shot 52.2 percent (12-for-23) following the break. And six different Tigers scored more in the second half than they did in the first, led by Towson’s senior-laden backcourt, with guards Rafriel Guthrie scoring 15 of his 16 points in the second half and Mike Burwell adding eight of his 15 points after intermission.

“I thought when they had to get a little tougher, they did, and they did it without Benimon,” Mihalich said. ”Him not being on the floor kind of pushed their other guys to do some things they don’t normally do, and they responded.”

Still, it wasn’t until Guthrie caught fire after a bad start, that the Tigers finally took control. Guthrie, who started just 1-for-9, made his last three shots while scoring eight straight Towson points, to turn a 61-53 Tigers edge, with 5:35 left, into the game’s largest lead, 69-54, with 3:11 remaining.
“Guthrie’s really playing well,” Mihalich said. “He had three blow-by’s, made some foul shots… they made winning plays and we didn’t… we don’t have a lot of room for error.”

The Pride’s Zeke Upshaw, a graduate guard, did all he could to keep Hofstra close by scoring 23 of his game-high 33 points in the second half, while finishing 7-for-13 after a dismal 2-for-8 start.

While Upshaw struggled early, the Pride took a 10-9 lead as the game started with six lead changes and one tie over the first 3:53, before the Tigers went on a 12-4 run.

Graduate guard Dion Nesmith scored 11 points while making his first four shots to keep Hofstra within 23-21, but he scored just three points on 1-for-6 shooting thereafter.

Considering Towson went 12-for-15 from the foul line while the Pride failed to attempt a free throw in the first half, Hofstra wasn’t in bad shape to be down just 35-29 at halftime.

Even with Benimon still on the floor, the Pride started the second half well, and took its first lead since 12-10, when sophomore forward Jordan Allen (12 points) made a free throw to put Hofstra up, 44-43, with 12:55 to go (24 seconds after Benimon left the game).

However, two free throws by reserve freshman forward John Davis (six points) on the next trip regained the lead for the Tigers, for good, 45-44.

Improving its shooting from 42.8 percent (12-for-28) in the first half to 57.7 percent (15-for-26) in the second half, while going 17-for-21 from the foul line (including 12-for-12 by Upshaw) in the frame, wasn’t enough for Hofstra, which was outscored 13-0 off the bench.

“I just thought we were taking what they were giving us in the first half but we still felt like we needed to go to the basket more in the second half, so we tried to do that,” Upshaw said, while admitting that coming up just short again ”was frustrating.”

After Guthrie gave Towson its comfortable lead, Hofstra fought back with a 19-9 run, and closed to within 78-73, on a 3-pointer by Upshaw with 49.1 seconds left.

Two missed free throws by Burwell left the door open, with the Tigers ahead, 80-75, but Upshaw and Nesmith each missed layups on the ensuing possession, before Benimon made three of four free throws over the next 12 seconds, to extend the lead to 83-75, with 10.4 seconds remaining.

Despite suffering a third consecutive loss and losing for the eighth time in nine games, Mihalich was pleased with the Pride’s effort, and warned that Hofstra could be a dangerous low seed in the CAA tournament in Baltimore March 7-10.

“These guys are great,” he said. “They just won’t stop playing for me. I’m so proud of them… we’re down [15], I’m sure most people would be thinking, ‘Let’s just hope this doesn’t get embarrassing,’ and the next thing you know, we’re down five, with the ball, and Dion’s driving the baseline. It’s just a great bunch of guys. They just won’t stop fighting… we deserve to get one of these, but nobody’s going to give you one. You’ve got to earn it… but I wouldn’t want to play us down in Baltimore.”

Before that happens, the Pride still has hope of trying to avoid the first-round game between the eight and nine seeds, if it can catch James Madison, which is currently tied with Northeastern for seventh place in the CAA.

Hofstra will travel to third-place William & Mary on Wednesday night to face a team that the Pride had its biggest conference win against (by 17 points, at home, exactly a month ago), before closing the regular season at The Mack against James Madison, on March 1.

For that contest to mean something in terms of the seven seed being up for grabs, Hofstra would not only have to win at William & Mary, but James Madison would have to lose at home, to Towson, on the same night. 

Jonathan Wagner writes for the Yahoo Contributor Network, where as a Yahoo Sports contributor, he was named one of Yahoo’s Top 100 Contributors for 2013. Jonathan also covers the Knicks, Hofstra University men's basketball and the 2013 NASL champion New York Cosmos as a credentialed writer for New York Sports Day. Follow him on Twitter, @JonathanJWagner.   

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Delaware Rallies Past Hofstra, Moves Closer to First CAA Title

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y -- While the Delaware Blue Hens and Hofstra Pride are going in opposite directions, the latter of those squads, true to its team nickname, showed a lot of pride before ultimately succumbing to the best team in the Colonial Athletic Association.

Eighth-place Hofstra (8-20, 4-9 CAA), picked to finish last in the nine-team CAA, surprisingly built a 40-25 lead, with 2:36 left in the opening half on first-place Delaware (20-8, 12-1 CAA). But the Blue Hens closed the game, 56-37, and held on for an 81-77 win at the Mack Sports Complex on Wednesday night.

“I thought it was a heck of a college basketball game, I really did,” said head coach Joe Mihalich, in defeat. “I’m really proud of our guys. It’s the team that was picked ninth… and they’re in first place now. We had our chances.”

It took a dozen games for Delaware to lose its first league game of the season on Saturday, at second-place Towson (9-3), and the Blue Hens simply weren’t ready to start their first conference losing streak of the year.

While Hofstra, in its first under Mihalich, clinched its third straight 20-loss campaign, Delaware moved a comfortable 2½ games ahead of Towson, which has four CAA regular season games left -- one more than the Blue Hens, who are trying to win their first CAA title since joining the league with the Pride a dozen years ago.

Prior to that, Delaware and Hofstra were bitter rivals in the America East Conference, where the Blue Hens won three regular season and four conference tournament titles (between 1992 and 1999) before Hofstra captured its only regular season and America East tournament championships in each of the following two seasons.

Although Delaware only closed the overall series gap to 48-30 in favor of the Pride, the Blue Hens have won the past seven meetings between the schools.

This time, it was on the strength almost exclusively of their four double digit scorers -- senior guard Davon Usher (game-high 27 points), senior guard Devon Saddler (24 points), junior guard Kyle Anderson (18 points) and senior forward Carl Baptiste (10 points, game-bests of 13 rebounds and four blocks) -- who accounted for all but two of Delaware’s points. Saddler also had the rare feat of recording every one of his team’s seven assists.
Meanwhile, Hofstra‘s two best players (each graduate students), forward Zeke Upshaw (26 points) and point guard Dion Nesmith (22 points), were the only two players to score in double figures for the Pride.

Each team made 27 field goal attempts with Hofstra attempting only one more (66-65), but after a fairly even whistle in the opening half, Delaware had a sizeable advantage at the free throw line (going 13-for-23 to Hofstra’s 3-for-7) in the second half, much to the chagrin of the home crowd.

He wouldn’t outright agree with that sentiment, but Mihalich subtlety hinted at the calls going the Blue Hens’ way, saying, “I guess we were fouling them more than they fouled us. You can read into that all you want.”

Another Delaware edge was self-made, when the Blue Hens fought back into the game with some full court pressure.

After Delaware missed its first eight shots, and Hofstra scored seven straight points to lead, 7-1, the Pride surged ahead, 21-7, and then by 15 points, until the Blue Hens resorted to some full court pressure to answer with seven straight points of their own.

That run stabilized the game for Delaware and brought the Blue Hens to within 40-32, before they trailed 41-32 at intermission.

“It was clearly one of the reasons we didn’t win this game,” Mihlaich said. “We didn’t handle the pressure in the first half. The foul trouble played into too… we had a couple ballhandlers on the bench and they knew to press us and they did, and we didn’t handle it.”

As it has so often for a depth-challenged roster, fatigue also seemed to play a role for a Hofstra team that led at halftime for the 15th time this season with barely more than half that many wins to show for those leads.

“We play eight guys and really it’s six guys getting [most of] the minutes,” Mihalich said. “So the second half rolls around, we get a little weary out there.”

Upshaw though, was the only Pride player to play the entire game, compared to three (Usher, Saddler and Anderson) who did the same for Delaware, which likewise had only six players getting the bulk of its team’s minutes.

And Usher (16 second-half points), Saddler (13) and Anderson (13) each scored more after halftime than before that point.

Especially Anderson, as the second half began. Making his first four shots of the half (after going just 1-for-6 in the first half), Anderson scored 10 points during a 16-8 run that pulled the Blue Hens to within 49-48.

Nesmith (who scored 17 points in the second half), had five points to key a 10-3 spurt that pushed the lead to 59-51.

On that idea of being winded in the second halves of games, Nesmith said, “We’ve been doing this all season so we’re kind of used to it.”

What Nesmith doesn’t get used to though, is losing, even when he plays well. “We’ve lost 20 times this year and every time, it gets harder and harder to lose.  The way I played doesn’t mean anything if we don’t win.”

Adding to that, Upshaw, who had 18 points (on 6-of-10 shooting) in the first half, but only one-third of that (on 3-of-8 shooting) afterwards, admitted, “I felt I could have made some shots for my team down the stretch.“

Seven points by Usher during a 15-6 run gave the Blue Hens their second lead (and first since 1-0), at 66-65, before Upshaw and Usher traded 3-pointers.

Those types of shots even out greatly after a decided edge for Hofstra early. The Pride made seven of its first 11 3-point attempts before missing its final three of the first half, and then making five of 14 in the second half. Delaware, on the other hand, missed 12 of 13 first-half shots from behind the arc before going 4-for-7 from that distance in the second half.

A trey by Nesmith put Hofstra up for a final time, 73-71, with 3:49 left, but layups by Baptiste and Saddler moved the Blue Hens on top, 75-73, just before Upshaw tied the game, 75-75, on a jumper with 2:06 remaining.

Saddler was then blocked by junior center Moussa Kone six points, team-bests of six rebounds and two blocks), but he gathered the ball back in and scored in the paint to put Delaware ahead for good, 77-75, with 47.8 seconds to go.

Missed 3s by Upshaw and Nesmith and a missed jumper by Nesmith on the next trip led to a foul and a pair of free throws by Anderson to extend the margin to 79-75, and two more free throws by Baptiste made it 81-75 in the final seconds, prior to Nesmith scoring on a meaningless layup.

Whereas the result wasn’t what Hofstra was looking for, it could serve as a confidence booster as the CAA gets closer to its conference tournament in Baltimore, March 7-10.

“I truly believe we could beat anybody in this league,” Mihalich said. “I tell [my players] that all the time… we’ve been right there with everybody… we ain’t goin’ anywhere.”

Hoping to start another winning streak, the Blue Hens will visit fourth-place Drexel as Hofstra hosts Towson on Saturday.