HACKENSACK, N.J. – As some crazy guy who travels to college basketball games with a stuffed basketball long after it was funny once put it, Greg Herenda arrived on the campus of Fairleigh Dickinson for his first Division I head coaching job to find his team had “exactly six players and zero assistant coaches”.
Less than three years later, he has FDU 40 minutes from an NCAA Tournament berth after an 80-75 NEC semifinal win over Mount St. Mary’s Saturday before a Rothman Center crowd of 1,562 that sounded much louder than that.
In typical FDU fashion, its NEC semifinal game Saturday featured wild swings of momentum and periods where the back-and-forth resembled tennis more than basketball. In the end, the young Knights looked like – after leading for much of the second half – the moment had finally gotten to them, BK Ashe’s two free throws with 4:53 left completed a quick 5-0 run to put The Mount up 65-63.
But on the ensuing possession, Earl Potts, the NEC’s Most Improved Player and probably the last player left off the NEC first-team, took what looked a little like an ill-advised 25-footer with plenty on the shot clock. But it hit nothing but the bottom of the net.
“I just felt good when I got the ball for some reason,” Potts said.
— Northeast Conference (@necbbt) March 5, 2016
And it’s that freedom that has defined both the Knights (17-14) and Herenda since his arrival at FDU. If there were any remaining nerves, they were erased seconds later when Darnell Edge banked in a three (from a tight angle, no less) to put FDU up 71-65, sending the Rothman Center into a frenzy. The Mount made a couple of charges in the final minutes, but FDU – which won its first NEC Tournament game in a decade on Wednesday – held on and the students stormed the court at the final buzzer.
It was belated, but there was a courtstorm at the Rothman Center: pic.twitter.com/Jf5soHRz1L
— Ray Curren (@currenrr) March 5, 2016
It was a tough loss for The Mount (14-19) and Jamion Christian, who couldn’t quite find the consistency it needed for much of the NEC season. The Mountaineers made seven of their first 10 three-pointers and flew out to a 35-23 lead with 8:22 left in the first half. It turned out to be a bit of fool’s gold, however, they made just one of their final 13 from beyond the arc.
“I’m such a eternal optimist that I thought we were going to make 15 or 16 three-pointers today. It was one of those days, though,” Christian said. “We didn’t do a great job in the second half of creating the same opportunities we did in the first half. That’s something we have to get better at. But that’s playoff basketball, emotions get high, and we did a good job of controlling them in the first half, making plays with our head and not with our heart, and that switched in the second half. We’ll take the offseason to work on those types of things. To win a championship, you have to have great poise, and we didn’t have that today.”
F D who?
— Northeast Conference (@NECsports) March 5, 2016
The Mount also conceded 39.4% offensive rebounds to FDU, with 8 of those coming from freshman Mike Holloway. Holloway has a career day at the perfect day, putting up 19 points and 17 rebounds, shattering his previous career high of 10 boards.
“Mike Holloway hasn’t really been playing to his standards, but he came in grumpy today,” Herenda said. “But when I came to the gym today, he was the first one in there, just working on his post moves. I just had a feeling we would need Mike today and he came up big for us.”
Junior Robinson had 21 points to lead The Mount, while Potts had 20 to pace FDU.
Herenda tried to deflect the attention away from himself postgame, but it was an amazing moment for a guy who declared after he was let go with Bill Herrion at East Carolina in 2005 that he wouldn’t again be an assistant coach. After working as a Yale assistant from 1997-99, he had been passed over for that job for a guy named James Jones (how’s he doing these days?).
That meant at the age of 43 in 2006, Herenda was leading Elgin (Ill.) Community College of the Illinois Skyway Collegiate Conference and Division III Cabrini College (Pa.) of the Colonial States Athletic Conference the next year, doing television work for the YES Network on the side among other things.
But he took over then-Division II UMass Lowell and made four NCAA Tournament appearances in five years before finally getting his first Division I head coaching gig at the age of 50 in 2013, near where he was from no less. He inherited a mess left by previous regimes, last of which was Greg Vetrone, who was 17-74 in his last three seasons, and a dreadful 7-47 in the normally parity-filled NEC, never even qualifying for the NEC Tournament in those campaigns.
So, yeah, it’s a good time to be Greg Herenda and the FDU Knights. But doing it the hard way has made him appreciate it even more.
“I reflect every day,” Herenda said. “I’m so proud of my players and my staff. When I go home at night, I have the greatest wife and son in the world. It’s Christmas for me every day. Whether we win or lose, even last year, I thought we were there. Our ultimate goal – and we set this goal in July – was to get to Dayton, Ohio because we know realistically the NEC goes there for the play-in. But to sit here and realize how quick, we haven’t been on this campus three years and this is where we are. It’s a testament to my staff and these kids. I’m a demanding coach, but what it’s over, they can see the fruits of their labor. I’m very appreciative of everything we have.”
A photo posted by Ray Curren (@goldenbally) on
FDU is 40 minutes from Dayton and reaching a goal most would have thought straight up nuts for a team being picked to finish ninth in the NEC and extremely young (of the eight players that saw action Saturday, four were sophomores and four were freshman).
Herenda and the Knights will be in front of a national television audience Tuesday night at Wagner for a chance to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005. They’ll be underdogs against the regular season champs, but Herenda for one knows how special the moment will be. He spent much of the second half trying to urge the Rothman Center crowd on, clearly enjoying a moment he had waited a long, long time to be a part of, and likely had plenty of times a decade ago that the chances of it ever happening looked slim and none with slim grabbing his coat to leave.
Needless to say, Tuesday will be a blast.
“It’s ironic, Jim Calhoun I think is doing the game Tuesday (for ESPN),” Herenda said. “I interviewed for Jim Calhoun for an assistant position at UConn a long time ago. That’s going to be surreal, that we’re on national television playing for the opportunity to play in the greatest tournament that God ever made, and the guy that was one of my mentors is going to be calling the game. And these guys are going to be out there balling. It’s a little bit surreal, but there’s 40 minutes of basketball between us and our goal still.”