- Steven Wright
NEW BRITAIN, Conn. - Complaining about the weather in the Northeast seems like a chronic obsession for some, but the blizzard that hit Connecticut two weeks ago was awful. Where I live, a ridiculous 40 inches of snow fell, schools were cancelled for a week, and four-lane roads became two. Several times, I drove down roads that appeared to be open only to be forced to turn around.
Quinnipiac and Central Connecticut sit just 30 minutes apart, yet the blizzard forced a 16-day postponement in their NEC matchup that only became larger as time progressed, so big in fact, the Blue Devils might have had their season on the line. With only eight of the 12 teams in the conference progressing to the postseason, Central entered tied for seventh, while Quinnipiac - amazingly still held out hope for a regular season title thanks to a six-game win streak finally living up to the potential everyone thought they had at the beginning the season.
The delay created a strange atmosphere at Detrick Gym, with the notoriously warm arena sectioned off, expecting big crowd for the rivalry contest, one they probably would have gotten had the game been played on the scheduled date. But on a Monday night, Detrick was only about half-full for the final meeting between the two rivals as members of the same conference, with Quinnipiac moving to the MAAC next season.
I call it the "Vinales Burst". Kyle Vinales came into Monday's game averaging 22.3 points per game, good for sixth in the country. He takes a lot of shots, he was only shooting 42.2 percent from the field, 38.5 on #superhoops. The Blue Devils also like to run, although they came in 341st (of 347 teams) in scoring defense.
Vinales doesn't budget his points over 40 minutes. In watching Vinales several times this season (and last), he often gets off to a tough start, and then there's a portion of the second half where - like the blizzard that buried Connecticut - he buries his opponent with a flurry of points in rapid succession.
Central Connecticut, one of the smallest teams in Division I, came into Monday's game with a - 6.3 rebounding margin, which just didn't match up with Quinnipiac, who boasts the biggest frontline in the NEC, one that reminds you more of a squad above the Red Line than the NEC.
To wit, the Blue Devils were outrebounded 46-34 and conceded 21 offensive rebounds, yet I think they did a tremendous job of fighting for every one.
Vinales only had five points in the first half, but CCSU was able to keep within striking distance at 35-33. And after the first media time out of the second half, the Vinales Burst came right on time, pushing the Blue Devils in front with seven straight points. Alas, the burst was short-lived on this night and it looked like it might not be enough against the streaking Bobcats.
A six-point CCSU lead with 5:30 left (as Vinales' scoring partner - Matt Hunter - finally started scoring after getting blanked in the first half) turned into a three-point deficit with 1:30 left with Zaid Hearst scored in traffic.
Central, not Quinnipiac, got two offensive boards on its next possession, and senior Joe Efese - who battled his way to 14 points and eight rebounds - put the second one back it to cut the lead to 65-64 with 57 seconds left. CCSU forced a Dave Johnson miss, and Vinales of all people grabbed the rebound.
Veteran coach Howie Dickenman had three time outs left, but he chose to let Vinales do what he pleased, which was try to get off a few screens, fail, and then finally pull up from about 28 feet, erring on the side of caution, probably not what Dickenman had in mind.
When he released the shot, Vinales - honored before the game for getting to 1,000 career points as a sophomore - was just 5-for-18 from the field and had missed his last five shots since his outburst early in the second half.
Swish. Of course. And he might have saved Central's season.
There was still 5.9 seconds left and Evan Conti drove all the way to the basket, but his runner came up short and Vinales had killed Quinnipiac's win streak with a dagger to the heart (it also ended an eight-game CCSU losing streak against Quinnipiac).
On the way out, Vinales' long bomb had me thinking of a long-lost Reebok basketball commercial about a playground legend called Lamar Mundane
, an ad I quoted in my playground days quite often.
"Slam dunks are tough. But when a 35-footer comes raining out of the sky, it'll wire you up."Vinales' winner may have fallen a tad bit short of 35 feet
. But the "wired up" part? I'll take that over a slam dunk any day.