Monmouth Opens NIT With Victory Over Bucknell

WEST LONG BRANCH, N.J. – The Monmouth University men’s basketball team, a 90-80 winner over Bucknell in an opening round NIT game Wednesday, probably won’t be lacking for incentive in Round 2.

When its hosts George Washington University 7 p.m. Monday it will apparently not only still be trying to prove the NCAA Selection Committee was wrong when they left the Hawks (28-7) on the sidelines for the 2016 Big Dance, but might have something to prove to the Colonials (24-10) and, in particular, coach Mike Lonergan.

Prior to the March 10, Atlantic 10 tournament quarterfinal game when GW seemed to be on the NCAA tournament bubble, Lonergan, who has taken Vermont and GW to the NCAAs, did not speak fondly of Monmouth when it came to comparing the 2015-16 resumes of the Hawks and Colonials.

He told the Washington Post that if it came down to GW or Monmouth, GW should not have to win the A-10 tournament to make the NCAAs.

“I’ll put our wins against Monmouth’s wins any day of the week,” Lonergan said of the Hawks, the regular season champions of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

GW finished fifth in the A-10 with notable non-league wins over Virginia, Seton Hall, Tennessee, and Penn State, and in league play won at VCU.

Monmouth won out of conference games vs. big time programs UCLA, USC, Notre Dame, and Georgetown.

“This is a new thing for me when coaches talk about other teams,” Monmouth coach King Rice said Wednesday. “Back in the 80’s when I played (at North Carolina) coach (Dean) Smith didn’t talk about Duke’s players.

“I don’t understand with these coaches – I’ve only been a coach five years – I don’t comment on other coaches teams. That’s not my spot to do.

“These guys that have all this experience – that’s what they’re doing. Happy for them they think that’s what’s cool to take shots at kids when you’re a grown up and get paid to do your job.

“I don’t understand when this started happening when coaches take shots at kids.

“That is ridiculous,” Rice said. “He should be ashamed of himself taking a shot at 18 to 22 year olds that don’t play for his team.”

Rice said he didn’t act that way when he was a child. “So why would I do that now,” Rice said.”

Rice said Lonergan is a “really good coach” but doesn’t know him personally. “I hope to meet him.”

He probably will Monday night.

After Lonergan’s remarks about Monmouth, GW went on to lose the A-10 quarterfinal to eventual champion St. Joseph’s dropping it out of NCAA Tournament consideration.

GW rode a a 12-footer with four seconds left by guard Alex Mitola, a graduate transfer from Dartmouth,  to an 82-80 victory Wednesday night over visiting Hofstra (24-10) setting up Monday’s date with Monmouth. GW has tied for second most-wins in school history.

Monmouth fell in the MAAC tournament championship game to Iona which cost it the league’s automatic NCAA bid.

Apparently had Bucknell coach Nathan Davis been on the NCAA Selection Committee neither the Hawks or the Bison would have landed in the NIT.

“The reality is, everyone knows it, they should have been an NCAA team,” Davis said of Monmouth. “I feel like we should have been too.”

The Patriot League champions (17-14) were shocked in in their opening league tournament at game at home in double overtime by nine-seed Holy Cross which went on to win the Patriot League tournament and Wednesday night defeated Southern in an NCAA first round game, 59-55.

Wednesday Bucknell played without starting senior power forward Dom Hoffman. The 6’7, 220 pound Hawthorne, N.J. native, averaging 6.2 ppg and 4.2 rpg, was injured in a recent practice.

“He’s kind of like the heart and soul of the team,” Davis said. “He brings a lot of energy, a lot of physicality and experience that you can’t really replace.”

Junior point guard Justin Robinson led Monmouth Wednesday with 23 points, junior forward Collin Stewart came off the bench and broke out of a slump to score 16 points, and senior Deon Jones added 15 points.

Junior guard Je’lon Hornbeak (nine points) yanked down a season high nine rebounds.

Bucknell placed five in double figures led by 18 points from senior forward Chris Hass.

Here are three takeaways from Wednesday’s game:

1.Monmouth bounced back from its NCAA snub. Rice said he told the Hawks Sunday’s NCAA Tournament disappointment was a lesson in life.

“As I told the team on Monday this wasn’t the hardest thing I ever had to deal with,” said Rice who overcame serious behavioral problems to eventually land the Monmouth job five years ago.

“And as young guys, even though they’re young, every single guy had to overcome something harder than what they had to overcome on Sunday,” Rice said.

Monmouth center Zac Tillman recently lost his father.

And there was another message too. “That life isn’t always fair,” Rice said.

“What you can do is stand there and complain,” Rice said. “Or you can move forward and try to get better. And I told them in not so many kind words, the type of guy I am I’ve gotten knocked down by way worse things than this and it didn’t even come close to stopping me.”

Robinson said with an opportunity to continue the season Monmouth wanted to seize the moment.

No one seized it more than Stewart.

Mired in a slump that had seen the long range bomber shoot 4-29 from deep while averaging 3.5 ppg. over his last nine games, Stewart shot 4-10 from downtown on Wednesday.

“The team and the coaches all encourage me a ton,” Stewart said. “It helps my confidence at times and really gets me going. Tonight happened to be a good night.”

Stewart’s first trey attempt struck the side of the rim but then he stepped inside the arc to swish a 17-footer. Suddenly the lid came off the basket.

“It always helps to see one go in,” Stewart said.

Stewart hit two from three-point land in a 9-0 Monmouth second half run that shattered a 52-52 deadlock. Monmouth’s biggest lead crested at 84-70 on a Josh James layup with 2:32 showing.

2. Robinson did not disappoint Davis “He was as good as I thought he was going to be,” the Bucknell coach said. “He’s very athletic, he shoots with range, he makes tough shots.

“You saw it over and over again on film. There was no doubt he was going to do that. We just wanted to make sure if he was going to shoot it, it was going to be tough (shots). And if he made them he made them. You’re not going to take a guy like that out of the game. He’s going to score some points. You’ve go to make sure he earned them all.”

Robinson made 4-7 from beyond the arc, had five of Monmouth’s 19 assists, grabbed two steals, and had two turnovers.

He laced a pair of 3’s in the final 38 seconds of the first half, the last at the horn, that sent Monmouth to the locker room ahead, 36-30.

With his production Wednesday Robinson improved his school single season Division I point record to total to 687 surpassing Alex Blackwell’s 663 in 1990-91.

Robinson’s 1,328 career points place him ninth and 16th respectively on the program’s Division I and all-time scoring lists.

Monmouth began playing basketball in 1956-57 and went Division I in 1983-84.

3. No Place Like Home Monmouth improved to 11-1 at home this season. With the school on break a crowd of 2,661, which included a good number of students, rocked the Multi Purpose Activity Center and brought Monmouth’s home season attendance to 43,718 over 12 dates in the 4,100 seat arena.

Including seven sellouts, Monmouth is averaging 3,643 fans per home game and is one of only two MAAC schools this season to average more than 2,000 at home.

“Definitely (we) have a lot of respect for the students that came back,” Robinson said. “I was getting texts and tweets all day that people were leaving spring break early to come back for this game.

“For them to show their support even though they were on break and come back speaks a lot to them.”

Rice also complimented what appeared to be a few hundred or so Bucknell fans that made their way to the Jersey Shore.

“They brought a nice little group,” said Rice. He also said maybe a Monmouth series with Bucknell could be looked at.

“They’re a Patriot League school and maybe it’s a school that we should talk about playing,” Rice said. “We’re similar levels. They have a team that’s hard to deal with. I feel like we have a team that’s hard to deal with. I’m friends with several of their assistants.”

Only Siena, which annually leads the MAC in attendance and averages over 6,000 at the Times Union Center in Albany, N.Y. has been a bigger home draw in the league than Monmouth in 2015-16.

The MAAC Attack

Along with Monmouth, three other MAAC teams have or will engage in post season play.

Tuesday Siena dropped an opening round game at home in the College Basketball Invitational to Morehead State of the Ohio Valley Conference, 84-80.

Wednesday Fairfield fell to New Hampshire of the America East Conference in the Tournament in a landmark victory for the visiting Wildcats (20-12). They notched the first 20-win season for a program that began in 1903.

Thursday in the NCAAs 13 seed Iona faces No. 4 Iowa State at 2 p.m. (TBS).

The Future for Monmouth

Monmouth’s penchant for playing loaded non-conference schedules under Rice will continue in 2016-17. According to the Asbury Park Press, next season the Hawks will play at Syracuse and at South Carolina as part of a Barclays Center event, and visit the University of North Carolina, Rice’s alma mater. Monmouth AD Marilyn McNeil told the Press on Selection Sunday that Villanova backed out of an agreement to play Monmouth in 2016-17.

Earlier reports had Rutgers ending its series with the Hawks though it is unknown how the Scarlet Knights’ incoming head coach will view the situation.

In the roster department Monmouth is slated to bring back its entire team next year with the exception of Jones, its only senior.

It has received signed Letters of Intent from New York City shooting guard Ray Salnave and 6’11, 245 pound Sam Ibiezugbe (Master’s School, Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.)

Mustapha Traore, a 6’9 freshman forward (Phelps School, Malvern, Pa.), who has been sitting out after not joining the team until the second semester due to an SAT issue, will have four years of eligibility beginning in the fall.

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