Standing with arms akimbo, Howie Dickenman surveyed his team as they were struggling to open the second half of Saturday afternoon’s game. After knocking down five straight three-pointers, spurring an improbable 21-5 run out of halftime, Fairleigh Dickinson (FDU) held a 13-point lead five minutes into the second frame. During the barrage of Knight rainmakers, not once did Dickenman call a timeout to stop the bleeding. He simply stood there with a frown.
The lead eventually grew to 15 points, and for the next ten minutes, FDU was able to maintain their double-digit advantage. With the Detrick Gymnasium crowd of 1,846 getting restless, it was beginning to look hopeless for the ninth place Blue Devils.
At that point, I was getting ready to prepare the obituary for CCSU’s season, even if Kyle Vinales was making his much-anticipated return from a broken finger that kept him sidelined for nine straight games. The junior, who led the NEC in scoring last season at 21.6 points per game, was understandably tentative and rusty out of the gate, scoring nine points through his first 25 minutes. The effort was obviously there, but there was no indication that the Blue Devils could right the ship and avoid being swept by FDU for the first time since the 2004-05 season. Sidney Sanders wasn’t being contained off the dribble, Mostafaa Jones was having a career day from behind the arc, and the CCSU offense, which impressively scored 1.22 points per possession in the first half, was suddenly stagnant.
But then, the Kyle Vinales of old reappeared.
“I felt like we were kind of getting down on ourselves,” Vinales said afterwards. “I just wanted to get a little emotion into the building and my teammates.”
It absolutely worked. Due to the efforts of Vinales, the insertion of De’Angelo Speech, who didn’t play at all in the first half, and a prudent switch to a man-to-man defense by Dickenman, CCSU started to show some life with their proverbial backs to the wall.
With the Blue Devils staring at a 2-8 conference record – their worst mark since the 1997-98 season – Vinales put on as impressive of a basketball clinic as you’ll ever see. Not only was he attacking the rim, but he was also putting teammates in a position to succeed. His 16 second half points sounds great, but to Dickenman, the seven assists Vinales racked up for the contest sounded even better.
“All he cared about was winning the game, as you can see with seven assists,” said Dickenman after earning his 269th career victory as CCSU’s head coach. “He couldn’t give a hoot about his numbers. He could have shot a few more times. He took 11 shots and I think that is the lowest of the year that he has played.”
Despite only taking 11 shots in the come-from-behind victory, Vinales still poured in 20 points. With the exception of a November win over NJIT, Vinales’ latest effort was his best game from an efficiency standpoint. It certainly helps to have more production around the 6’1″ guard when compared to last year. For starters, the Blue Devils now possess a post presence such as Faronte Drakeford. On Saturday, the junior power forward poured in a career high 25 points – his eighteenth game this season in double figures – to go along with eight rebounds. More importantly, Drakeford’s dominance down low has allowed Vinales to focus less on scoring the basketball and more on making the right plays.
“In the beginning of the year, I felt like I was still trying to score too much,” Vinales said. “But as the year has gone on talking to coach (Dickenman), he’s basically telling me I have the other players around me. He’s right obviously, so I feel like I won’t be taking as many shots, will try to get more assists, get my teammates involved more and the game will open up for me.”
Make no mistake, Vinales is still a scorer first and foremost, but his return last week illustrated some maturation on his part. It even got to the point where Dickenman was somewhat incredulous during the game. “(Vinales) even had an example where I think there was a two on one, and he gave it up (to a teammate) just before he could have laid it up,” Dickenman explained with an ever so slight smile. “It was a turnover and for the first time in my life I had to say (to Vinales) ‘you have to shoot the basketball, don’t pass it.’”
Looking ahead, the Blue Devils currently occupy eighth place in the NEC, one game ahead of LIU Brooklyn for the last playoff spot in the NEC tournament. With three more games versus LIU and the last place Sacred Heart, CCSU has a chance to improve their tournament position.
Especially with a new and improved Kyle Vinales back in the fold. With the junior in uniform, more backcourt depth, recent inspired play from seniors Terrell Allen and Speech, and the continued development of Drakeford and Brandon Peel in the low block, Blue Devils fans have a reason to be optimistic even if their team holds a 3-7 conference record. It’s doubtful they’ll fade away and fall out of the NEC postseason picture. They may, in fact, be a dangerous team come March.
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride.