With great expectations comes great pressure. Or something like that.
It’s hard to call the expectations Saint Peter’s and Hartford “great” this season, but maybe “greater” might do the trick. And while Hartford escaped with a 51-50 victory at the Chase Family Center Sunday afternoon, neither team left the opening weekend brimming with confidence.
Saint Peter’s, picked fourth in the preseason poll by the MAAC coaches, has not finished higher than fourth in MAAC play since 1994-95 (although it does have two NCAA tournament appearances in that span), while Hartford – picked second in America East – has never won a regular season or tournament conference title in its Division I history, and the 17 games it won the last two years tied a Division I program record.
The Peacocks lost 70-58 at Brown in its opener in a game that they trailed by 20 early in the second half, and to make matters worse, starting point guard and preseason second-team All-MAAC selection Desi Washington hurt himself late in the second half diving for a loose ball and sprained his wrist. Head coach John Dunne said afterward Washington will likely miss a couple of weeks.
Without Washington, the Peacocks struggled offensively, missing 16 of its first 17 three-point attempts, but still led for much of the first half thanks what Dunne hopes will be its biggest strength: defense. After falling behind 8-1 in the first three minutes, Hartford scored only 15 points in the rest of the first half and led 26-23 despite attempting only 17 field goals.
Eventually, though, the lack of offense caught up with Saint Peter’s. Marvin Dominique, who led all scorers with 17 points and added 13 rebounds, scored four points to tie the game at 38 with 7:45 left, but Aussie sniper Taylor Dyson – just 1-of-7 on three-pointers in Friday’s loss to Sacred Heart – hit three in a row to give the Hawks a nine-point lead. Dyson, in a low scoring game, would make all five of his attempts from beyond the arc.
Still, Saint Peter’s somehow clawed back into it and got the ball back late down 51-48. Dunne elected to go for a quick two and Dominique got an uncontested dunk with 7.1 seconds left. Trevis Wyche stole the ensuing inbound pass, but did so in the corner. The Peacocks were out of timeouts and by the time Wyche could extricate himself, the only option he had was a left-handed 20-footer from the corner at the buzzer that hit the side of the backboard.
“You’re always going to look like you struggle when you don’t make shots,” Dunne said. “Honestly, out of our 19 threes, I think maybe two were shots I didn’t like. They were open, we’re making them in practice. Maybe some guys without Washington put a little too much pressure on themselves. I thought our intensity and energy were tremendous, though.”
Unfortunately for Dunne and the Peacocks, they play the earliest conference game in the nation, hosting Niagara Thursday night at the Yanitelli Center. It’s likely Washington will miss that game, but he should be back for their next MAAC game when they host Canisius on Dec. 6.
“If there’s a positive, it’s that we were forced to play more guys with Desi out and maybe they’ll be better for it when he comes back,” Dunne said.
While Hartford had no injuries to speak of, any confidence they had in preseason was shattered Friday when it was blasted 71-53 by Sacred Heart, a team that was 5-26 last season.
“Friday night shocked us,” Hartford coach John Gallagher said. “No doubt about it.”
So it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the Hawks were suffering from residual confidence issues less than 48 hours later. In particular, senior Mark Nwakamma (who got a nice preseason write-up in the Hartford Courant) seemed like he needed a boost. Nwakamma, a two-time All-America East selection and certainly in the discussion for conference Player of the Year this season, scored 15 points and had seven rebounds against Sacred Heart, but also committed seven turnovers before fouling out.
Nwakamma had four turnovers in the first six minutes Sunday and then picked up his second foul soon thereafter, the only stats in his linescore at the half.
“Me personally, I think I’ve just been a bit too antsy, especially to start the game,” Nwakamma said. “We had a great crowd (nearly 2,000, many of them students), great fans, and I just rushed things. We kind of started this season with the wrong mentality, we just have to play for each other. We got a good win today.”
Nwakamma was better in the second half, but still finished with just six points (and just two field goals attempts) and two rebounds to go with six turnovers (now 13 for the season). To his credit, Nwakamma hit two massive free throws with 25 seconds left to push Hartford’s lead from one to three. Gallagher, who never projects much negativity (he started the postgame by saying Saint Peter’s was picked fourth in the MAAC, but had them up to second by the end of the press conference), thinks Nwakamma will be just fine, thank you, as the Hawks have two winnable games against Dartmouth and Niagara this week.
“We have to as a coaching staff stop talking about him (Nwakamma) taking care of the ball,” Gallagher said. “He’s a senior, I talk about it too much, and the more we talk about it, the more he thinks about it. We’re not going to overthink it anymore. It’s like when you tell somebody, ‘Don’t do, don’t do’, it happens because it’s constantly in your thoughts. Mark’s going to take care of the ball and we’re going to play through him because he’s a great player.”
Of course, Gallagher knows things could be much worse. Three years ago (in his second season, Nwakamma’s freshman season), the Hawks lost their first 13 games of the season before posting their first win on Jan. 5. Hartford also missed some open shots and looks much stronger defensively than they were a couple of years ago. Irish (as in from Ireland) freshman John Carroll gives them much-needed size off the bench and everyone else in their regular rotation is an upperclassman, so once that confidence returns, Gallagher thinks the Hawks will be fine.
“They thought the goal was the America East championship. That’s not the goal. The destination is the America East championship. We can’t play tight. We have to be a team that plays loose, the ball’s moving, we’re not thinking, we’re just reacting. We saw that for about 10 minutes today and we have to get to 40 minutes of that.”