HOFSTRA 71, TOWSON 68
HOFSTRA SEASON RECORDS: 15-9, 7-6 CAA
PLACE IN CAA STANDINGS: tied for 7th
JENKINS SEASON AVERAGES: 18.1 pts, 4.8 reb, 3.5 ast, 3.5 to
Like so many other times this season, Hofstra came out flat and sluggish, this time, with Charles Jenkins looking tentative early, and the Pride trailing a team they beat fairly easily, earlier this season, in what was Hofstra's biggest offensive output of the season. Even in that game though, Hofstra trailed early, 12-2, before they kicked it into gear for a 49-point first half en route to a 90-79 win at Towson on December 6th.
On Saturday, Towson (8-17, 3-10 CAA) again jumped on Hofstra 18-7 nearly halfway through the first half. In fact, it was the third straight time the Tigers started fast against the Pride, as they led 31-13 at halftime of last year's CAA First Round Tournament game, ultimately a Towson win, last March.
That's when Charles Jenkins decided to play like the young captain his coaching staff made him, turning up his game with tenacity, drive, and fire -- a style of play that would eventually rub off on his fellow sophomore teammate, Nathaniel Lester, during a huge second-half stretch with Jenkins on the bench in foul trouble.
Jenkins had only taken two shots, making one in the first 10 minutes, before closing the first half looking like he might challenge the career-high 33 points he posted at UNC-Wilmington on January 28th. After getting a good look on a right-wing three-pointer (with Hofstra down 18-9) but missing long, Jenkins got another good view of a right-wing three coming off a screen, knocking it down, cutting Towson's lead to 20-14 with 7:54 left in the first half. That seemed to get Jenkins going.
The earlier tentativeness shown at times by Jenkins in the beginning of games this season, is seen as both a positive and a negative by Jenkins' Head Coach Tom Pecora. It's finding the right balance that breeds success for a player like Jenkins. Pecora said of Jenkins, "When you're best player is willing to share the ball -- sometimes to a fault, I have to talk to him sometimes about being more selfish -- you have a good chance to win some games."
Jenkins made a jumper 40 seconds later, to pull the Pride to within 20-16, but an 8-0 Towson run gave the Tigers their biggest lead of the game, 28-16, with 5:57 left in the half. Again, that's when Jenkins responded, putting the team on his back, playing with a certain level of passion, almost even anger -- as if to say "Enough! We're not losing this!" -- to a level that I hadn't quite seen before from him this season.
Jenkins showed some great fight inside to gather a loose ball and muscle in a hoop through lots of traffic to stop the 8-0 Towson run, before going strong to the basket for a hoop plus a free throw, for the old-fashioned three-point play. After that drive, and before the free throw, Jenkins showed some great leadership on the floor, grabbing the jerseys of teammates, sophomore Greg Washington and senior Zygis Sestokas. "I told them we have to defend. We're down, we can't trade baskets," Jenkins said.
Jenkins knew the importance of the game, with Hofstra controlling its own destiny for CAA tournament first-round bye in March with a strong regular season finish in February. "Last night, we met up as a team and watched film," he said. "Coach put the standings up on the board and the [latest] scores [of other CAA games], and we
how the league's kind of up and down, and where we stand. The beginning of the year, we were projected as the 7th team [in the conference], but if we play harder, we can easily be one of the top teams in this league. So, hopefully if we can string a few wins together, other teams lose, we can get that fourth spot so we don't have to play that first night."
Playing hard for the seniors as their college careers wind down in the next few weeks has energized the play of Jenkins and his teammates lately. "It's a team effort," Jenkins said. "We have six seniors, and everyone wants to play as hard as they can for them. I talk to Mike Davis[-Saab] a lot and he's been one of the guys that put me under his wing since I got here and I just want to play every game as hard as I can for him because I know this is his last go-around, and this might be the last chance I get to hang out with him as much as I can now."
Davis-Saab is the type of player who has limited ability, and who you will barely notice in the box score, but who Pecora and Jenkins both love as a senior team leader, with his great work ethic, especially in team practices.
"These seniors, it's kind of sad," Jenkins added. "I'm gonna miss these guys, they're like my big brothers. Even though Coach made me captain, I always come to them for advice and they always welcome me with open arms. I just want to play as hard as I can for them so they can go out with a bang."
Further demonstrating maturity beyond his 19 years, Jenkins focused more on the recent home loss to VCU in a team sense, rather than on any personal lessons learned from the CAA's best player, Eric Maynor, outplaying him, or seeing one of Hofstra's best all-time players, Speedy Claxton, having his number retired earlier that day.
After the Towson game, Jenkins simply focused on the lessons learned from the VCU loss, saying, "The only thing that inspired us was losing the game. We live and learn from that. We seemed to make a lot of bad mistakes going towards the end of that game, and the thing that will help us is if we learn from those mistakes."
Jenkins remained very aggressive, on one play, going very hard to the hoop, getting knocked to the ground on a very hard hit, but responding with a pair of free throws.
At one point, Jenkins had 12 points with the next closest Hofstra player having just four. By the half, senior forward Arminas Urbutis, who never before scored in double figures in his career, had 10 points to go along with 6 rebounds, while Jenkins finished the half with a game-high 16 points on 6 of 11 shooting (after a 1-for-3 start), as Hofstra cut Towson's lead of a dozen to just 35-31 at the break. Urbutis didn't score in the second half but grabbed 5 more rebounds after the halftime.
The real story of the game cane in the second half, when sophomore Nathaniel Lester, who starred at Canarsie High School, stepped up after being challenged by Jenkins (whose request turned out to be a foreshadowing). Jenkins called Lester after Hofstra's previous game, a blowout loss at George Mason on Tuesday. Little did they both know that Jenkins would miss much of the second half, and Hofstra would really need someone else to save the night.
That's where Lester, who has finally of late turned into the player Hofstra had been waiting for when they recruited him. Lester had scored in double figures in just 6 of his first 49 college games, including none in the first 19 games this season. But, not only did Lester score in double figures for the 4th time in 5 games, but he scored 19 of a career-high 21 points in the second half, to keep Hofstra in the game, the same way that Jenkins kept the Pride in the game in the first half.
"That's my boy," Jenkins said. "He was a very good player [at Canarsie], I called him the night after we lost [to Mason] and I asked him, 'Can we see the Nathaniel Lester from high school, the one that we were highly recruiting, and see if he can play like that, the way he's capable of playing?' He started laughing but he told me he was going to show me and he proved it [today]. "
Pecora called it "A big breakout game for Nathaniel offensively," adding "I thought Nathaniel Lester did a great job with the post-ups, we ran a few cuts to get him the ball in the post and allow him to power the ball to the rim."
Lester accepted the role well, his 21 points on 7 of 12 shooting second only to Jenkins' game-high 24 points on 7 of 13 shooting and Towson's Junior Hairston's 23 points on 8 of 15 shooting. "I knew when Charles got his fourth foul," Lester said. "I had to pick up the slack, and overall it's just been a sense of urgency that every minute you're on the court, you just gotta play hard, and good things will happen defensively and offensively."
That fourth foul came because of an earlier double technical foul. Jenkins and Towson's David Brewster each got a quick whistle for a double technical foul with 16:29 left in the game. The problem with that call was that in the CAA a technical is also a personal foul, so when Jenkins picked up a foul just :32 later, Pecora was forced to sit his best player (the game's leading scorer with 21 points at that point) with four personal fouls, Hofstra down 43-40, and still 15:57 left in the game. Pecora said it was a "Silly technical, over-zealous on the part of those people who make those decisions."
I asked Pecora if he had thoughts of sitting Jenkins with three fouls and still over 16 minutes left in a close game, to avoid the very thing that happened -- a quick fourth foul quickly thereafter (I would have). But, Pecora said, "I played him in the first half with two [personal fouls], I usually don't do a whole lot of that. You gotta play it out. He's a sophomore, but in minutes, he's a senior, so I trust him to make good decisions. It's like a parent, you know, you trust your kid, and then they don't make [good decisions], it happens to players to sometimes."
I remain a little skeptical that maybe Pecora temporarily forgot the rule that a technical also counts as a personal foul, because he's a smarter coach than to have left Jenkins in with 3 personals and so much time left in a close game, but I'll take the coach at his word about trusting Jenkins to stay on the floor and stay out of further foul trouble at the time.
Pecora was happy to see his team pull through without Jenkins on the floor nearly a 10-minute stretch, as Jenkins only returned for the final 6:21 of the game. “That's all part of the growth process. We're a team, you [sometimes] gotta learn to play without your best player on the floor."
Hofstra saw a glimpse of the future with its local New York talent. In addition to Lester, 6-10 sophomore Greg Washington also contributed with 9 rebounds and 6 points, none bigger than the game-winner in the final minute. A missed tip-in by Urbutis bounced into Washington’s hands. Most of the arena was thinking of holding for one shot with the shot clock turned off, but Washington unexpectedly fired and hit a clutch shot from the left elbow, giving Hofstra a 70-68 with :30.4 left.
Pecora joked, “That was one of those ‘No, no, no! Whoa, great shot, because we could have pulled it out and held for one and run something to end the game. But that was a big-time shot.”
“It was like a mix-up,” Washington said. “We fought for the rebound and I was standing right there, and I was open, so I shot it.” The Pride was then able to make a stop and then Lester sealed the 71-68 win with a free throw in the final second.
With a young core of Jenkins and an ever-improving Lester and Washington, all sophomores, Hofstra could be a very dangerous team by the time that trio becomes seniors, along with the talented Chaz Williams (now playing at Bishop Ford High School), who will be a sophomore, running the point for Hofstra in two years.
For now however, Pecora recognizes that his team is that has one potential but is still searching for consistency. “That’s Hofstra Basketball,” he said after the game. “Pat Riley patented the term ‘three-peat’ and I was going to patent the term "bi-polar basketball" because we can look great for five minutes and we can look bad for five minutes."
Pecora joked about how long it’s been since the Pride shot as well as it did in the second half against Towson, while encouraging his team to pick up the defense in the second half, saying “In the second half, we shot 54 percent. It felt like we shot 90 percent because we've been shooting 29 or 30 [percent] a lot of games. The first half was more of the same. We shoot 30 percent and they shoot 50, so at halftime, I told them, guys, if we defend, we'll be okay."
Although the win was perhaps tougher than it should have been, Pecora makes no apologies, especially with the top two teams in the CAA (Northeastern and VCU) losing to the two teams at the bottom of the conference (William & Mary and UNC-Wilmington, respectively) last week. “This is not like a lot of other leagues,” Pecora said. “There are no games on our calendar that you circle and say, 'Well, we're gonna get one here.' And, it doesn't matter whether it's home or it's away, because it's that competitive of a conference.”
Hofstra must keep that in mind down the stretch even though its schedule is considerably favorable to that of Drexel, Old Dominion (which the Pride play next), and James Madison, as all four teams fight for that the four seed and the highly-valued CAA tournament first-round bye that goes with it.