HOFSTRA 88, NORTH CAROLINA-WILMINGTON 81 (OT)
HOFSTRA SEASON RECORDS: 20-10, 11-7 CAA
PLACE IN CAA STANDINGS: 5th
JENKINS SEASON AVERAGES: 19.2 pts, 4.8 reb, 4.2 ast, 3.4 to
They grow up so fast. In Charles Jenkins’ case, his game has matured just as quickly.
Jenkins turned 20 on Saturday, and he did so doing what he loves best. Playing basketball, and playing it extremely well.
The final day of the 2008-09 CAA men’s basketball regular season was quite eventful one for Saturday’s birthday boy who leads the Hofstra Pride. A few things could have worked out better, but overall, it would have been difficult for Jenkins to write a better script for himself. But then, as you’re about to read, for all his talent and personal success, that’s not the humble, team-first manner in which Jenkins operates.
On the minus side (it’s always best to end on a high note and save the good news for last)…
1) Hofstra blew all of a second-half 14-point lead against the CAA’s last place North Carolina-Wilmington Seahawks (7-24, 3-15 CAA).
2) For the second straight game to close the regular season, the Pride’s normally solid defense was torched for a lot of points on a higher-than-usual field goal percentage, especially late.
3) By the narrowest of margins, Hofstra missed out on the all-important bye for the CAA tournament by a single three-point field goal made by Old Dominion in its overtime win at Northeastern. The race for the 4 seed in the CAA was an exciting one. Hofstra’s win, coupled with Drexel’s one-point loss at William & Mary later that evening would have allowed the Pride to back in for the four seed and a first-round bye in the CAA Tournament. Given the history of the CAA tournament, that’s huge, as no team playing in the opening round has ever won the tournament, and only two of those teams have ever made the finals (though, both were recent, with fifth-seeded William & Mary making it last year and sixth-seeded George Mason playing in the CAA finals in 2007). After Hofstra gutted out its 88-81 overtime win at home against UNCW on Saturday, Drexel’s 58-57 loss would have given Hofstra the four seed and the CAA’s final first-round bye had ODU’s three-pointer with :12 left in regulation at Northeastern less than two hours later, missed. But, it went in, tying that game, 50-50, and ODU went on to win 57-54, in overtime, to grab the four seed. As a result, fifth-seeded Hofstra plays the same Seahawks, the last seed in the twelve-team CAA, in the Pride’s next game, in the opening round of the 2009 CAA tournament (Friday, March 6th, at 2:30pm EST, at The Richmond Coliseum, in Richmond, Virginia). ODU awaits the winners in the quarterfinals, at 2:30pm EST, the following day, in the same side of the bracket which contains top-seeded, three-time defending CAA regular season champion Virginia Commonwealth (21-9, 14-4 CAA).
Now, the good news, and there was a lot of it, particularly for Jenkins, though unless asked, he’d be the last to make it a point to tell you about it. So, I will, for him, because what he accomplished before a loud crowd of 3,600 fans at The Mack Sports Complex in Hempstead on Saturday was a pretty impressive way to end his sophomore regular season and begin his post-teenage years.
One could tell early on that Jenkins was going to have a big day. He scored a career-high 33 points in Hofstra’s only other meeting against UNCW, an 80-78 Hofstra win on the Seahawks’ floor on January 28th.
On Saturday, Jenkins seemed to have an extra bounce in his step, slapping his teammates five and singing along to the music played on the public address system as Hofstra’s student section, The Lion’s Den, serenaded Jenkins with the “Happy Birthday” song during Hofstra’s layup drills about 25 minutes before the Prides’ six seniors (forwards Mike Davis-Saab, Dane Johnson, Zygis Sestokas, Arminas Urbutis, and guards Greg Johnson) were honored on Senior Day.
Jenkins has said all season how close he is to his teammates, particularly the seniors, and much sending his senior teammates out with as much success as possible, has been a driving force for his own play, and in wanting to help Hofstra win this season. And, it showed from the opening tip, when Jenkins went crashing into the Hofstra bench trying to save a loose ball from going out of bounds just :03 into the game. Thirteen seconds later, after a Jenkins steal, he quickly pushed the ball upcourt, finding an open Sestokas on the left wing, with some good court vision and a nice pass. Sestokas nailed a three-pointer :19 into the game, to give Hofstra a 3-0 lead. As soon as the ball passed through the net, Jenkins, happy for his senior teammate and for his team, yelled with his mouth wide open, as he turned and threw his fist in the air in jubilation.
That play set the tone for Jenkins. On a day when Jenkins would celebrate his birthday with a hot-shooting (11-18 fg, 2-4 3fg, 11-13 ft), career-high 35 points, while becoming the fastest player in Hofstra history to reach 1,000 career points, Hofstra’s sophomore captain handed out 8 assists and committed just 2 turnovers. In contrast, the rest of Jenkins’ teammates had a combined 8 assists and 9 turnovers.
Despite being only the second sophomore in Hofstra history to reach 1,000 points (the Pride’s all-time leading scorer, Antoine Agudio, is the other), winning on Senior Day for his teammates is what mattered most to a selfless Jenkins. “The only thing I was concerned about was getting the victory in our home court for our seniors,” Jenkins said. “As far as the accomplishment, it’s an honor because it’s a program [which has produced some] great guards, but for the most part, I’m here for my team. I could leave the accolades.”
A Jenkins layup with 8:36 left in the first half gave him a game-high 7 points and put Hofstra up 27-14, but some lax defense allowed a 12-2 UNCW run over the next 3:12, to trim the Pride’s lead to just 29-26, with 5:24 left in the first half. Hofstra got the lead back up to 7 on three different occasions thereafter, before settling for a 38-33 halftime lead, with Jenkins being the game’s only player in double figures in scoring, with 11 points (5-7fg, 1-1 3fg), 4 assists, and no turnovers.
Jenkins helped get Hofstra going again in the second half with a nice shake-and-bake move driving left, reversing and spinning into the lane, drawing a foul, and making both free throw s to put the Pride ahead, 45-39, with 15:14 left in the second half. “I’m like a fullback,” the strong 6-foot-3, 220-pound guard said, about his ability to repeatedly absorb hard fouls in the lane such as on that play.
Jenkins then helped Vines (the only other Hofstra player in double figures in scoring, with 17 points in 24 minutes off the bench) heat up. Jenkins assisted on two Vines’ three-pointers, sandwiched around a tough Jenkins drive (for his 20th point of the game and 996th in his career), to help Hofstra to the biggest lead of the game, 53-39, with 12:33 left in regulation.
(Now the bad news again, for a brief moment, before more good news later)…
That’s when Hofstra again became negligent on the defensive end, allowing UNCW to go on a 16-6 run to cut the Pride’s lead to just 59-55, with 7:41 left. Jenkins made a pair of free throws during that stretch for his 22nd point (998th of his career) putting Hofstra up 55-46, with 11:11 to go in the second half.
Jenkins then assisted on a Sestokas three-pointer to give the Pride some temporary breathing room, 62-55, with 7:14 remaining, and the milestone came on Hofstra’s next possession.
Up 62-57, Jenkins made a great move, driving from the top of the key, spinning to his right, into the lane, sending a high-arcing leaner to the rim. The ball bounced twice, before the shooter’s touch dropped it through the net for Jenkins’ 24th point of the game, the 1,000th of his career, giving Hofstra a 64-57 lead with 6:18 left in the regulation. After the next whistle, Jenkins received a standing ovation as his career accomplishment was announced, but Jenkins remained focused on winning.
A three-pointer by Vines (assisted by Sestokas) got the lead back up to 67-57 with 5:46 to go, but UNCE closed to within 73-70 with 2:42 left. Jenkins then twice (on a pair of free throws, and later, on a layup) got the lead back up to five points, the latter of which, drew “Charles Jenkins” chants as it made the score 77-72, with 1:43 remaining, but the scrappy Seahawks still wouldn’t go away. A jumper by UNCW forward Dominique Lacy made it 77-74 with 1:23 left, and Vines missed a three-pointer at the other end. On the next possession, Townes mad ea nice block inside, but the ball went unluckily, right to UNCW guard Johnny Wolf, who drilled a game-tying three-pointer with :19.4 remaining.
Hofstra had a chance to win the game in regulation as Jenkins appeared to draw a foul with less than :02 left, but as has often been the case this season, the Pride curiously failed to get the friendly whistle at home. “I thought [Jenkins] got hit on the elbow, Hofstra Head Coach Tom Pecora said. “He’s not gonna shoot the ball four feet from eight feet [away].”
Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), Pecora wasn’t too pleased with his team’s lacking focus and a killer instinct down the stretch.
“They get too nice,” Pecora said. “They’re wonderful guys, they’re really good guys. They’re fun to be around, they’re just too nice, and that [could] come back and bite [them] in the tail.”
Pecora added, “I thought that there was about an eight-minute stretch where every trip down they went to the foul line or they got an offensive rebound, and they out-toughed us. I was screaming at our forwards and running guys in an out, and just begging somebody to play hard enough for us to find a way to win the game, so I’m not happy about that.”
When Pecora first entered the postgame press conference room, he spotted Nick Bond, the Hofstra Chronicle writer, who covered his last Pride basketball game (at least as a Hofstra student). Bond has taken some from the Lion’s Den, a little overboard at times. A few weeks ago, Bond felt the Hofstra student section was missing some energy and some creativity with its cheering, and he made that known in the school newspaper. As expected, the Lion’s Den responded, yelling at and criticizing Bond at each Hofstra home game since. I sat next to Bond the first two games since the now famed article, and he’s been a very good sport about it, even as jeers and personal insults (that’s where it’s probably gone too far at times) have rained down on Bond. Though the Lion’s Den should have probably let it go by Saturday’s game, Bond’s efforts have seemingly worked, as whether by coincidence or not, the student section had become a factor in the Pride’s home games down the stretch (which is what Bond told me he was shooting for all along). Pecora sat down at the conference and said, “Nick! What’s up?! You got that student section going, kid!” When Bond responded that he was sad it was his last game, Pecora joked, “You know what? I though it might be my last game too, a couple times in that second half. When I yelled, I thought my heart was gonna come out of my mouth.”
Pecora wasn’t feeling good about his team’s chances after UNCW forced overtime, saying “Usually when you go into a game at home in overtime, you feel confident about it. I didn’t feel confident at all about it. I thought we let them back in the game.”
But, a coach will always feel that way. A player won’t, as Jenkins said in contrast, “I can’t… not be confident. If that’s the case, then I shouldn’t play basketball.”
Jenkins played that way down the stretch. He gave Hofstra the lead for good, 82-81, with 1:31 left in the game, making a strong driving shot off glass from the right blocks. Jenkins then sank a couple of free throws with :57.9 to go, for an 84-81 Hofstra lead, after another nice spinning drive to draw a foul. After UNCW missed a three-pointer, Vines grabbed the rebound and alertly outletted to sophomore forward Greg Washington who slammed home a dunk with :32.7 remaining, putting the Pride up 86-81, and sending the crowd into a frenzy, the loudest I heard it all season. Jenkins then sealed the win with a couple more free throws, for the final 88-81 margin, letting Pecora and his team breathe a sigh of relief.
Some may say with no bye, the win wasn’t all that important, that the 5 seed isn’t much of a difference than the 6 seed if you have to play the extra day either way. But, if you’re Hofstra, I think it’s key. Although VCU beat the Pride twice this year (each by only single digits), Hofstra was competitive in each game, and I believe the Pride match up a lot better with VCU than with second-seeded George Mason (20-9, 13-5), which handed Hofstra its worst CAA loss of the season (78-54, on February 3rd) in their only meeting. Had the Pride dropped this game, not only would it be going into the tournament on a very bad note with two awful losses, but as a 6 seed, it would likely have faced Mason in the semifinals if it made a run. As a 5 seed, if it can make a run, Hofstra avoids Mason until the finals.
Regardless of all of that stuff however, the key for Hofstra to make history and become the first opening round team to win the CAA tourney, is to get some of the core surrounding Jenkins to play at the level it was playing earlier in the season, even as well as it played within the past couple of weeks.
As Pecora noted, “We haves some guys right now who are not playing to their potential. They’ve kind of dipped back down to where they were early in the year. I wish I was the kind of coach, and I have friends who are like this and I envy them, that they could say, ‘Hey man, we just found a way to win and we won our 20th.’ But, I’m not, so I’m gonna look at this and say we’re not playing our ‘A’ game, we’re going into a tournament and I don’t feel good about the way we’re defending, I don’t feel good about the way we’re running offense… and there were a lot of things that I wasn’t very proud of for us as a team, because we gotta get a little bit better every day, and I think we’ve slipped a little bit.”
Pecora is certainly happy to rebound from last season’s 12-18 nightmare, the only season in the past five in which Hofstra failed to win 20 games, but he expects his team to be able to make some noise in Richmond. “For a team to go from 12 wins to 20 wins speaks in volumes for their character and how hard they worked in the offseason, but I want more,” he said.
“I think it’s going to be as wide open a tournament as we’ve ever had. We probably have as much depth as anybody, but we just gotta get everybody on the same page for a few days,” Pecora added.
Jenkins, last year’s CAA Rookie Of The Year, is also in search of more for his team, saying “I would trade my rookie of the year for a couple more games last year. There’s six teams [legitimately in contention for this year’s CAA championship], and I feel that this is a chance for us to do something special for the program as well as for each other.”
And, Jenkins is well aware that a window that’s open today may not remain open for long. “I feel that this is our best shot to do something very special because after this year all our bigs are gone and next year it’s like we’re starting off new as far as our front court is concerned. Tournament time is when everything just goes out the window and intensity just rises.”
Sometimes, I wonder just how much some reporters really know, or how much research they do. One reporter (who I won’t identify) asked Sestokas if this year’s team is the best team that Sestokas has been a part of heading down to Richmond for the CAA Tournament since he’s been at Hofstra. Pecora was quick to remind the reporter (who, keep in mind, is a vet who should have known better, not a young kid), that Sestokas had been a part of a couple of other good teams (the teams during Sestokas’ freshman and sophomore years each finished 14-4, in third place, three games better than this year’s Hofstra team which went 11-7 in the conference; those teams won 26 and 22 games, respectively).
Nevertheless, the inquiry prompted a good response from Sestokas, who simply smiled and said, “I think we’ll find out after the season.”
And, Pecora’s response? “That’s a good answer.”
Hofstra Great Rich Laurel wasn't in the house (he's coahing in Belgium these days), but his number 21 was retired at halftime. Laurel led Hofstra to its first-ever NCAA tournament appearances in 1976 and 1977.
Included in the pre-game ceremony honoring Hofstra's six seniors was a nice video tribute. Thinking of that and of Laurel's number being retired, I had to think... some of the seniors honored on Saturday weren't the most accomplished in Hofsrta's program yet they (deservedly so) had a video tribute, yet no video tribute when one of Hofstra's best players ever, Speedy Claxton, had his number retired earlier this year. Claxton even commented that day that he was sort of expecting to be honored on the main scoreboard. Did they not record video highlights back when he played?
Hofstra is 13-2 in games decided by 5 points or less, making the Pride lead the nation in "close wins."
7 of Hofstra's 11 CAA wins this season have been by single-digit margins; of those, 5 have been by 5 points or less; of those, 2 have been by 3 points and 2 others have been by 2 points.