Mount St. Mary's University is located a healthy 70 miles away from my workplace, and another 50 miles in a different direction from my home. It certainly makes for a challenging commute on a snowy weekday game night, and one that I shouldn't normally attempt (if only my wife really knew where Emmitsburg, Md., was).
However, with the Wagner Seahawks in town, I couldn't pass up this opportunity. The Hurley brothers, Dan and Bobby, were now coaching one of the more hyped mid-major programs in the country. They were so hyped that features about Dan Hurley now existed in the USA Today, New York Times, and Andy Katz's ESPN college basketball blog. The national attention was so hot that people had recently begun asking silly questions on Twitter like, "could Wagner receive an at-large bid if they don't win the NEC tournament?"
(The answer: absolutely not, but they look good qualifying for the NIT at their current pace)
I needed to witness the Hurley Hype in-person, mainly because I was interested in Wagner's suffocating pressure defense, the same defense that held Northeast Conference opponents to a league-best 0.86 points per possession and 26.7 percent from behind the arc.
I arrived at Knott Arena a few minutes late, but just in time to witness an early 12-2 run by Hurley's Seahawks. As I had expected, the Mount players had great difficultly running their offense in the half-court set, thanks in large part to Wagner's pesky guard play of Kenneth Oritz and Latif Rivers. On the offensive end, a couple of Tyler Murray three-pointers gave Wagner a nice cushion merely five minutes into the contest.
If you didn't know the score, however, you would have thought Wagner was losing, due to the sideline antics of one Dan Hurley. The screaming of instructions, the foot stomping, and the constant pleading with the referees made Hurley appear as an angry and cantankerous man (and certainly not a favorite among the Mount faithful I sat near). His antics, I must admit, were tired and even at times, comical. It got to a point in the first half where I seemed more interested in watching Dan Hurley's reactions than I was in watching the game. Perhaps I should have instead sat behind the Mount's bench, led by their subdued and tranquil coach Robert Burke?
Nevertheless, I settled down, and so did the Mount St. Mary players -- well, to a degree. A few buckets in the paint from sophomore center Kristijan Krajina reduced Wagner's lead to six points, but a late rally pushed their advantage to 11 points, 30-19, going into the half. All in all, it was a game plan that couldn't have been drawn up better by Wagner's coaching staff. Force 12 Mount turnovers, hold them to 1-for-6 shooting at the three-point line, commit only three personal fouls, and make some timely outside shots. Even Dan Hurley must have cracked a smile in the locker room looking at the first-half box score.
In the second half, to Burke's credit, the Mount came out more aggressive and fought hard. Freshman Kelvin Parker was particularly impressive on both ends of the floor, contributing four points, two rebounds, an assist and some inspired defense, all in a span of five minutes. In spite of Parker's performance, the Mount never got any closer than seven points in the second half.
Wagner was simply a well-coached machine, excelling in ball movement, controlling the game's tempo, and of course, forcing turnovers with their in-your-face defense. After a 16-3 run extended Wagner's lead to 18 points with six minutes remaining, the game was essentially over. And I was afforded more time to study the Hurley brothers on the sideline.
Sure, Dan Hurley may be a little too animated out there, but one thing was for certain. This was a Wagner team that was dialed in, who fully respected and bought into Hurley's coaching philosophy. It was evident how much the team trusted and was inspired by their coaches, and it was a cool thing to see from afar. No matter how annoying Dan Hurley's antics were.
When the final horn sounded, the Wagner Seahawks earned their 20th victory of the season, an achievement that not even Dan Hurley could have imagined 24 games into the 2011-12 season. The win guaranteed playoff basketball for Wagner, but their goal of making the Big Dance still remains. And they have a fighting chance to do just that.
I certainly wouldn't bet against the Hurley Hype.
WAGNER 59, at MOUNT SAINT MARY'S 44 02/08/2012
WAGNER 20-4 (11-2) -- C. Williams 4-12 8-9 17; L. Rivers 3-11 3-4 9; T. Murray 4-11 2-3 14; K. Ortiz 3-11 1-3 7; J. Williams 6-8 0-0 14; J. Thompson 1-2 0-0 2; C. Martin 1-5 0-0 2; N. Folahan 1-2 0-0 2; O. Parker 3-3 0-0 6; M. Burton 0-1 0-0 0; M. Moody 1-2 1-2 3. Totals 23-56 7-12 59. MOUNT SAINT MARY'S 6-18 (4-9) -- J. Norfleet 6-14 2-2 18; K. Parker 5-12 1-1 11; K. Krajina 4-11 1-2 9; D. Thompson 1-3 0-0 2; J. Castellanos 0-6 0-0 0; C. Holley 1-4 0-0 2; R. Barber 1-3 0-0 2; J. Wells 0-1 0-0 0; X. Owens 0-1 0-1 0. Totals 18-55 4-6 44.
Three-point goals: WAG 6-19 (C. Martin 0-3; T. Murray 4-8; K. Ortiz 0-1; L. Rivers 0-3; M. Burton 0-1; J. Williams 2-3), MSM 4-22 (K. Krajina 0-2; J. Castellanos 0-3; J. Norfleet 4-10; C. Holley 0-2; K. Parker 0-5); Rebounds: WAG 34 (K. Ortiz 5), MSM 29 (J. Norfleet 7); Assists: WAG 12 (K. Ortiz 5), MSM 8 (J. Wells 2); Total Fouls -- WAG 13, MSM 14; Fouled Out: WAG-None; MSM-None.