Score one for not taking performances in early-season games too much to heart, I guess.
When they came into the TD Bank Sports Center on Nov. 14, Hartford was full of pith and confidence, picked second in America East, full of veteran players (six seniors and returning all five starters), and led by All-America East selection Mark Nwakamma, the Hawks were matched up with Sacred Heart in the season-opening CT 6 Classic at Quinnipiac and figured to have a fairly easy time with the Pioneers, coming up a 6-25 campaign and picked dead last in the NEC preseason coaches poll.
But they didn’t just get beat by Sacred Heart, they got destroyed to a 63-44 tune, a game that saw the Pioneers shoot 18-for-26 from the field in the second half and Nwakamma turn the ball over seven times.
Later that same night, Quinnipiac’s 88-85 double-overtime win over Yale was not as surprising (although it was certainly more dramatic), but the Bulldogs were talked up all offseason as a possible challenger to a nationally-ranked Harvard team and Quinnipiac put up 88 points (albeit in double overtime) against a very good team.
Fast forward 11 days later to Tuesday night back at TD Bank, and that season opener was gone, baby, gone, as Hartford controlled the tempo from the opening tip and flustered that Quinnipiac offense into terrible shots and turnovers en route to a 54-50 win, their fourth straight since that Opening Night hiccup in the same arena, and Hartford’s first 4-1 start since 1996-97. The Bobcats/Braves had won seven straight in this in-state rivalry, dating back to when Quinnipiac was going Division I in 2001 and 14 of the last 15 going to 1976, when they were both in Division II.
“I went into the locker room that night (after the Sacred Heart game) and it was just me and the players. I don’t know if they expected me to get on them really hard,” Hartford coach John Gallagher said, “but the first thing I told them was I love them and I love coaching them. The reality is we were talking (America East) championship or bust and that was the wrong approach. It was about enjoyment of playing the game for the right reason and that’s what we did.”
Meanwhile, Quinnipiac dropped its second straight home game (LaSalle) and have looked anemic on offense in both, especially on Tuesday, where they were held to not only just 0.75 points per possession, but only 67 possessions, a pace that clearly favored Hartford. Quinnipiac went 0-for-15 from three-point range, and outside of Zaid Hearst (20 pts, 10 rebs, 6-11 FG), the Bobcats were just 12-of-44 from the field. At the other end, they forced only eight Hartford turnovers.
“We have a 2-2-1 press that can sometimes speed things up a little,” Quinnipiac head coach Tom Moore said. “The problem was we were playing so fast offensively. In the first half, the ball just wasn’t going in. In the second half, we were feeling sorry for ourselves and trying to make six-point plays off the first pass. They guarded our reversals with a lot of intensity, which was a great job by them, and that’s not something we saw on tape when we scouted them. It was always a one or two-possession game and we haven’t worked on our press enough, we haven’t cultivated that, so I wouldn’t call us a great pressing team right now anyway. So as a team, we don’t really trust it yet. If I had to do it over again, I would have done something with 10 or 12 minutes left, but I didn’t.”
To make matters worse for Quinnipiac, Hearst – who is averaging 21.5 points and 8.5 rebounds per game – was injured on a fairly ugly play with just 10 seconds left. Corban Wroe came around a screen and fell, barreling into Hearst’s legs as he was shooting a three-pointer, like a defensive lineman taking out a quarterback trying to throw.
Hearst stayed in the game to make two of three free throws, but hobbled to the bench after that, and needed help from teammates to get to the locker room after the final buzzer sounded. Moore said afterward that Hearst told him that he thought hit collided knees with Wroe and hoped that was it, but they wouldn’t know until they saw how it felt tomorrow (Wednesday). Quinnipiac hosts Vermont Sunday before opening MAAC play against Siena and Fairfield next weekend, and obviously losing their best player for any length of time would be a crippling blow.
Meanwhile, although Hartford had scored 54 points or less in three of its four wins, their offense executed for much of the evening, taking advantage of Quinnipiac rotations and slow reads to get decent looks at the hoop on plenty of its possessions, as the eight turnovers showed. Nwakamma, who has struggled for much of the young season, turned it over only once and finished with eight points and seven rebounds, showing signs that he might be ready to break out. Hartford should beat Division III Emerson Friday night and travel to Yale Sunday at 5-1 and still not having played close to their best, at least on the offensive end.
“We’re happy, but we’re not to the level of play where I’m happy,” Gallagher said. “I’m happy about us winning, absolutely, but if you said to me, ‘You played good tonight.’ I wouldn’t say that. I’d say we played tough tonight. We played tougher than them at certain points to get the win. We were executing, but we weren’t knocking down some wide open shots, especially in the first half.”