HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. – The way things have gone so far this season, the Florida Atlantic Owls might want to consider switching conferences.
Despite three losses against teams from the West Coast and Pac-12 conferences, and the Patriot League, FAU (3-3) is perfect in three tries against the Colonial Athletic Association.
Following wins against Georgia State (at the World Vision Classic in Seattle) and George Mason (at home, in overtime, over one of this season’s CAA favorites), FAU completed a clean sweep of the trio of its regularly scheduled games with the CAA, as senior reserve guard Alex Tucker made a floater in traffic with just 2.4 seconds left to beat the Hofstra Pride, 62-60, before a sparse crowd of 1,436 at the David S. Mack Sports Complex on Tuesday night.
Not bad for a team hailing from the Sun Belt Conference, a league which hasn’t made much noise in the NCAA tournament while producing an average conference RPI of more than 19 over the past six years. In contrast, the CAA has averaged a league RPI of 12, while sending a pair of teams to the Final Four over that same time period.
Tucker however, made sure that FAU would once again prevail over the CAA, even if senior guard Mike Moore, likewise did all he could down the stretch to try to pull out a win for Hofstra (2-2).
The two guards took over during a frantic final stretch, after each team took its largest leads of the game.
While FAU missed its first seven shots after intermission, Hofstra scored the first four points of the second half to extend a slim halftime lead to a game-high 36-27, with 16:53 left in the game.
Pride head coach Mo Cassara took a time out at that point, one that seemed to serve the Owls a lot better.
FAU head coach Mike Jarvis (who after making his name at George Washington and St. John’s, has turned around the smaller Owls’ program, guiding them from a 6-26 record in his first year at the school two years ago, to a regular season league title last year), changed three players on the floor, including a benching of junior guard Greg Gantt (game-high 21 points in 29 minutes) and Tucker, both of whom Jarvis didn’t put back in the game until the score was later tied.
Primarily with the new lineup, FAU scored the next 13 points during an 18-4 spurt to take its largest lead, 45-40, with 9:45 remaining. Gantt, coming back into the game with Tucker, scored the final five points of the run on a three-pointer and a layup.
A tip-in by senior guard Nathaniel Lester (his only basket in 13 attempts from the floor, while netting just six points, 13.3 points below what he was averaging as the Pride’s second-leading scorer) and a layup by Moore trimmed the Owls’ lead to 45-44, with 8:23 left.
Although he wasn’t scoring, Lester had a game-high-tying three steals and grabbed game highs of six offensive rebounds and 12 boards overall, to lead the Pride to a 42-34 rebounding advantage, which included 20-10 on the offensive glass.
After Lester’s basket ended FAU’s run, neither team led by more than two points the rest of the way, as half of the game’s 14 lead changes and half of its ten ties all occurred in the final 6:50, when Tucker and Moore each had big hands in keeping their respective teams in the game.
Moore (team-high 20 points) scored seven of the Pride’s final nine points and Tucker (8 points, game-high 6 assists in 19 minutes) played a major role in all but two of the Owls’ last 13 points, as FAU scored on each of its final six trips, with Tucker scoring the last four of his team’s points.
Following a three-pointer by junior point guard Stevie Mejia (14 points) that gave Hofstra a 51-49 lead, Tucker assisted on consecutive baskets by Gantt.
The Owls had a brief 53-51 lead, but Gantt fouled Moore behind the three-point arc, allowing Moore to sink three foul shots and put the Pride up 54-53, with 2:23 left.
Gantt and Moore then traded baskets before Tucker set Gantt up for a left-corner three-pointer that put FAU back ahead, 58-56, with 1:24 to go.
Reserve sophomore guard Shemiye McClendon (12 points) tied the game, 58-58, on a jumper with one minute remaining, but Tucker, very patiently picking his spot, scored on a nice up-and-over floater down the lane, to move FAU back ahead, 60-58, with 44.7 seconds remaining.
Gantt again fouled Moore, who calmly tied the game again, 60-60, on two free throws with 26.6 seconds left. Moore was perfect at the foul line (9-for-9) for the Pride, which made 87 percent (20-for-23) of its foul shots to hold a decided advantage over the Owls, who made eight free throws in only 11 attempts (72.7 percent).
That set the stage for the 5-foot-11 Tucker, who again came down the lane and dropped in a terriffic tear drop in traffic for the game-winner, as the Pride, with just four team fouls and a couple to give, elected not to use any fouls before an FAU shot attempt.
Hofstra had one last chance to tie or win, but an inbounds pass from their own baseline eventually ended up near the FAU foul line, where McClendon made an incredible long-range tip-in, which was correctly ruled as coming after the final buzzer, following a video review.
The Pride held small leads for most of the opening half, leading by as many as five points on four different occasions, the last, at halftime. The Owls’ biggest lead of the first half was four points after starting the game with a couple of three-pointers to take a 6-2 lead.
Aside from their top three scorers, it was an extremely rough shooting night for Hofstra, which missed a lot of easy shots inside.
Moore (5-11 fg), Mejia (5-11 fg), and McClendon (5-8 fg) shot a combined 50 percent (15-for-30) from the field, but five other Hofstra players combined to make just two shots in the same number of attempts, for an unthinkable 6.7 percent, to drag the Pride’s overall shooting percentage down to just 30 percent (18-for-60).
“I’m disappointed that we didn’t execute as well as we needed to,” said Cassara. “When you have three or four of your top guys [shoot as poorly as they did], [senior point guard Dwan] McMillan goes 0-for-5, [starting junior forward David] Imes goes 1-for-6, and Lester goes 1-for-13, we could have the best game plan in the world, [but] we’re not going to win those games… we hung in there and we had an opportunity to win the game, but we didn’t play our best basketball. That’s something that we have to fix, and that’s going to take a little bit of time.”
With Hofstra’s three forwards and one center combining to shoot just 12 percent (3-for-25), one player who might have helped up front is the tallest player (by two inches) on the Pride’s roster, 6-foot-10 forward Bryant Crowder, a Harlem, NY native and transfer from the College of Eastern Utah.
Crowder has yet to play in a game that counts for his new school after scoring 12 points on 5-of-8 field goal shooting (including a monster dunk), making both of his free throws, grabbing four rebounds, and blocking two shots in 17 minutes during an exhibition win over Division II Queens College on November 5th.
Neither Hofstra nor Cassara has publicly stated the exact issue keeping Crowder out of the lineup, but whether it has to do with Crowder’s schoolwork or some other off-the-court matter, remains purely speculation for now, as the team continues to stay tight-lipped about the situation.
Cassara did mention however, that the problem is not related to anything that Crowder is lacking on the court.
“[It’s] just a coach’s decision, trying to get him acclimated to the program and what we expect [of him] on a daily basis,” said Cassara. “Hopefully we can get everybody on the same page and that will help us in the future… it’s strictly my decision, for the overall development of our program and our team… it has nothing to do with basketball or anything on the court… he needs to continue to improve, and once he does that, he’ll be ready to help us.”
Improve exactly what is still a mystery, as is Crowder’s possible return date, but Cassara hinted that the forward could be back in the lineup fairly soon. “It’s something our staff and I will talk about this week and we’ll make some decisions moving forward,” said Cassara.
FAU finished 42.6 percent from the field (23-for-54) after shooting in the 30’s for much of the game, and shot a similar 42.1 percent from behind the arc.
Hofstra was more efficient from three-point range, where it shot 57.1 percent (4-for-7), but FAU scored twice as much from that distance (making eight three’s), taking nearly three times as many attempts (19).
Up next for the Pride is the Legends Classic in Kingston, RI, where Hofstra will be tested with three games in as many days, meeting tournament host Rhode Island (0-3) on Friday at 5 pm ET , Cleveland State (4-0, with a win over nationally ranked Vanderbilt) on Saturday at 1:30 pm ET, and Boston University (0-3) on Sunday at noon ET.
Now that FAU finished undefeated against the CAA (pending any future postseason meetings this year), the Owls set their sights on even larger targets, all on the road, as they stay out of conference before eventually beginning league play on New Year’s Eve.
In four of its next five games, FAU face two currently nationally ranked opponents while squaring off against teams from the Big East (at South Florida), Big 12 (at #14 Kansas), SEC (at #24 Mississippi State), and ACC (at Miami).