Coming into last night's game, in six of their eight conference losses, Hofstra has lost by a total of twenty five points. It's never been a question of heart. The Pride have played hard all season, and with very few exceptions, they have been very competitive in their games this season. Hofstra even has three non conference wins over teams that are in first place in their conference (LIU, Cleveland State and Iona). That's what makes it so surprising that they didn't have a single CAA win entering last Saturday evening.
In an earlier article this season, I wrote about why the Pride have lost so many games this season. Turnovers and two point field goal percentage defense have been their achilles heels for the most part. Still, having seen in person this team beat several good teams is what makes it most frustrating. I am sure that many fellow Hofstra fans probably have felt the same frustration this season
But there was a glimmer of hope last Saturday evening as my friend Tieff and I stood outside the entrance to the Spiro Sports Center Gym on the campus of Wagner College before the LIU-Wagner game. We were listening to the end of the Hofstra-James Madison game on my WRHU app for the IPhone. The Pride had led most of the way until losing the lead late. It was like the story line to many of their games this season; lead for a good part of the game only to lose at the end. But Steve Mejia, who had struggled all season in part due to injury, hit a three point play with six seconds left to give Hofstra their first conference win of the season; a 71-69 win over JMU.
Finally, the Pride had some momentum entering their Wednesday night contest vs. George Mason. This time Hofstra was back home at the Mack Center as the students were back as well. It was nice to see the Lions' Den packed again. In fact, we had two enterprising students dress up as referees. Before the game, they followed the CAA officials around, mimicking their every move. Too bad they couldn't officiate the game as well.
My son Matthew and I took our usual seats. It was another free give away night as we were each given coffee mugs. I don't have to worry about my six year old son drinking coffee for a while. He was content to have his pre game ritual of a pretzel and a bottle of water.
If the Pride were going to build upon their success from Saturday night, they would have to do so against the first place Patriots, who had only lost one conference game entering last night's contest. Mason Nation was in full force as they filled the entire section behind their bench. Have a first place team, will travel.
But it was Hofstra that came out looking like the best team in conference. The Pride went out to a 9-0 lead, looking aggressive and confident. Mike Moore and Nathaniel Lester combined to score the Pride's first nine points as Hofstra looked sharp on offense.
Meanwhile, Mason couldn't hit the side of barn nor could they hold onto the keys to the barn. In the first five minutes, the Patriots missed their first five shots and matched that with five turnovers. But George Mason had recent history on their side.
That's because during this season, Hofstra had started out strong in several games, building big leads, only to hit an ice cold stretch and allow their opponents back in the game. In a recent game vs. Northeastern, Hofstra scored the first nine points of the game as well, only to see the Huskies score the next twelve points. Northeastern would end up winning a nailbiter 64-62.
Sure enough, the Pride's shooting went frigid as they went without a field goal for almost six minutes. Little by little, Mason cut into the lead. But the Patriots' shooting was equally as arctic. Over the first twenty minutes, George Mason would be four of twenty three from the field.
The first nearly twenty minutes of the game were comical. You had brutally bad shooting, two teams carelessly turning the ball over, lane violations and rugby scrums. All that was missing was music from the Benny Hill show. After eleven minutes of game action, the score was incredibly Hofstra 12 George Mason 7.
What kept the Patriots in the game, though, was their foul shooting, especially from Jonathan Arledge. Mason, who came into the game with the second most free throw attempts and the second most free throws made, went eleven of thirteen from the free throw line, with Arledge a perfect six-for-six from the charity stripe. The eleven free throws accounted for nearly fifty eight percent of their points in the first half. Though Hofstra was not shooting well and not careful with the ball, they were playing hard as they always do. Poor Stephen Nwaukoni crashed to the floor during several rebound attempts. I thought on the third time they were going to have to carry him back to the bench. But with help from his teammates he kept getting back up and stayed in the game.
Nwaukoni was in better shape than Ryan Pearson though, who had to leave the game due to being hit in the face with a tipped pass. Pearson, the Patriots leading scorer on the season, was on the sideline bleeding being attended to by the trainer. To say the first half was physical was an understatement. After a particularly hard foul by Mike Morrison on Dwan McMillan, Matthew turned to me and said "I hate George Mason right now." Probably McMillan felt the same way too.
The first half mercifully ended with Hofstra holding a 20-19 lead. Despite shooting seventeen percent and turning the ball over eleven times, George Mason was amazingly down one point at the half, thanks to defense, rebounding and free throw shooting. The teams combined for twenty turnovers and twenty fouls in the first half. Hofstra shot only eight of twenty three from the field and was only two of five from the free throw line.
It didn't take very long for the Patriots to come out firing. With a Hofstra student holding a giant Andre Cornelius credit card in the front row due to his arrest last summer for using a stolen credit card, Cornelius buried two three pointers to start the second half to put George Mason out to a 25-20 lead. Then Pearson started getting into the action with a three pointer and a couple of free throws. The lead was extended to eight, 36-28 with about ten and a half minutes left.
But as I noted, despite their record, the Pride have played hard all season. And Hofstra rallied, scoring eight straight points over the next two and a half minutes. David Imes nailed a three pointer from the left corner and the game was tied at thirty eight with a little more than eight minutes left. The crowd was finally into the game. Then the fans had even more reason to cheer as Mike Moore's three pointer gave Hofstra their first lead of the second half, 41-40.
The Pride actually took a three point lead before Cornelius hit his third 3-pointer of the night to tie the game at 43 with five and a half minutes left. The teams then exchanged the lead three times over the next couple of minutes. An Imes jumper gave Hofstra the lead 50-48 with a little more than two minutes left in the game.
But George Mason would respond with a Sherrod Wright jumper and one. Wright would hit his free throw to put the Patriots up one, 51-50. Free throws would be the deciding factor down the stretch. And as fate would have it, just like all conference season, Hofstra missed four open jumpers in the last ninety seconds in the game. Four more Patriots free throws would seal Hofstra's fate. After Shemiye McLendon's layup was blocked by Mike Morrison, George Mason ran out the clock. Another close game, 55-50. Another close loss for the Pride.
Moore, the leading scorer in the CAA, led all scorers with eighteen points. Lester added 12 points for Hofstra. Pearson, the third-leading scorer in the CAA, only had seven points on the night. But the Mason bench had his back. Reserve guard Sherrod Wright led the Patriots with 15 points while Arledge added ten points. George Mason's bench outscored Hofstra's bench 36-6.
Hofstra actually outshot George Mason from the field, hitting five more field goals, as both teams hit five 3-pointers. But the big difference was the free throw line. The Patriots hit 20 of 23 free throws while Hofstra was 5 of 11 from the charity stripe. If anyone ever tells you that free throws don't matter, just show them the boxscore of this game.
As we made our way out of the arena, I was at a loss for words. It was now Hofstra's seventh loss in conference decided by six points or less. Matthew, however, was not a loss for words. He expressed his frustration over how close Hofstra was beating a first place team. All I could do was say "I know. I know." When we got home, my wife had made brownies. Sometimes, even at your lowest point, inspiration strikes. I cut a brownie from the tray, put in the bowl and put moose tracks ice cream on top.
As I started writing this article, I had my comfort food. Another close game. Another close loss.
GEORGE MASON 55, at HOFSTRA 50 01/25/2012
GEORGE MASON 17-5 (9-1) -- P. Howard 4-10 0-0 10; R. Pearson 2-6 2-5 7; M. Morrison 1-5 1-1 3; S. Wright 5-8 5-5 15; C. Edwards 2-6 4-4 9; V. Vaughns 0-1 0-0 0; A. Cornelius 3-7 0-0 9; J. Arledge 2-6 6-6 10; B. Allen 0-6 0-0 0; V. Gray 0-2 2-2 2; P. Bennett 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 15-47 20-23 55. HOFSTRA 7-15 (1-9) -- M. Moore 7-12 0-0 18; N. Lester 5-15 2-4 12; D. Imes 4-6 0-0 9; S. Nwaukoni 2-5 0-1 4; S. Mejia 1-3 2-3 4; D. McMillan 0-2 1-3 1; S. McLendon 1-6 0-0 2; M. Kone 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 20-49 5-11 50.
Three-point goals: GMU 5-15 (A. Cornelius 3-6; R. Pearson 1-3; S. Wright 0-1; J. Arledge 0-1; C. Edwards 1-4), HOFS 5-14 (N. Lester 0-3; S. Mejia 0-1; D. Imes 1-1; M. Moore 4-7; S. McLendon 0-2); Rebounds: GMU 39 (R. Pearson 10), HOFS 21 (S. Nwaukoni 6); Assists: GMU 8 (R. Pearson 2), HOFS 16 (M. Moore 6); Total Fouls -- GMU 20, HOFS 20; Fouled Out: GMU-None; HOFS-N. Lester.