When the basketball season started for the two teams I follow the most - the Hofstra Pride and the Iona Lady Gaels, there was much uncertainty for both teams. For the Pride, they lost their best player, Antoine Agudio due to graduation. For Iona, not only did they lose three starters to graduation, they also lost their best returning player, Anna McLean, due to medical reasons. Hofstra had brought in three JUCO players; Cornelius Vines, Tony Dennison and Miklos Szabo. By the sixth game of the season, all three were in the starting lineup. For Iona, they had an entire team of underclassmen, of which the starters consisted of one junior, two sophomores and two freshman. How they have done so far is an attestment to their coaches, Tom Pecora and Tony Bozzella.
For Hofstra, Tom Pecora has always believed in guard play. Its been that way since he was an assistant coach on Jay Wright's teams. He has been involved in the recruiting and coaching of some of Hofstra's all time great guards; Speedy Claxton, Norman Richardson, Jason Hernandez, Rick Apodaca, Mike Radziejeski, Loren Stokes, Antoine Agudio, Carlos Rivera and now Charles Jenkins. The philosophy is simple; let your guards take advantage of one on one matchups, often drive to the basket and create scoring opportunities from there. And there has been a great amount of success. In the past ten seasons under Pecora and previously Wright, the Pride have made the postseason six times - two NCAA berths (should have been three) and four NIT appearances.
Hofstra was picked to finish seventh in the CAA in the preseason poll. Then Hofstra started their season at the Charleston Classic. After getting clobbered by Clemson, where the Pride seemed unprepared to face the Tigers, the Pride have rebounded to win their next two games in the tournament, albeit by close fashion in both games. This would become a consistent theme as they would win an additional five games in a row, none of them really that easy, including a win at Manhattan that may qualify for "Ugliest Game of the Year".
There has been inconsistent play as you would expect from a team with three new starters. But somehow Hofstra guts out their wins. It all starts with Jenkins, the 2007-08 CAA Rookie of the Year. Jenkins has upped his game this year to average nearly 22 points per game. As for the concern where Hofstra was going to get other scoring from, one of the JUCOS, Cornelius Vines has stepped up to average 13 points per game. The Pride on average score 70 points per game.
Now, even though the Pride are 7-1, their play as aforementioned has been far from stellar. There is still too much, as my friend Tieff would say, "dribble, dribble, dribble" by the Hofstra guards. There needs to be more passing, more movement. However, there are signs of improvement. The first thing you may have noticed this season with the Pride is that eleven players play significant minutes for the Pride. In fact those eleven players average 10 or minutes per game. If you looked back at just two seasons ago, the Pride would go seven-eight players deep. The Pride are starting to get their big men involved. Unlike the two previous seasons where 80 percent of the scoring came from their guards, this team gets about 30 percent scoring from their forwards (this was very evident from their win over Towson). However, the Pride still need to get their big men involved more consistently and need to look inside more first before shooting the three. Their first real test may come at UMass, though the Minutemen are struggling. However the conference season gets in full swing in early January, and that should tell soon enough just how good the Pride are.
The Lady Gaels were picked sixth by the MAAC Preseason Poll. This despite having finished second in the MAAC two years in a row and having gone to the WNIT also two years in a row. This was probably due to losing four starters from last season's team. However, this didn't phase the Lady Gaels. They immediately won their first three games including a ten point winner over West Virginia, who won a first round NCAA tournament game last year, in Morgantown. That has been the Mountaineers' only loss so far this season. The Lady Gaels would lose their first game, a tough two point loss at Wichita State, without starting forward Kristina Ford. Then the Gaels would win two more including a 33 point blowout over UMES in the first day of the Iona Thanksgiving Classic, a game that I talked about in a previous posting.
Then, as young teams do, a letdown occurred the next day, a ten point loss to Western Michigan on the second day of the tournament. The question would be, going into two conference road games, how would the Lady Gaels respond to a disappointing loss. The answer would be provided in their second half vs. Rider. Having blown a fourteen point lead by the end of the first half, the Lady Gaels would come out against the Broncs with their best half of the season. After giving up 48 points in the first half, Iona held Rider to 28 percent shooting from the field, including 3 of 17 from beyond the three point arc. After having shot only 58 percent from the line in the first half, Iona shot 12 of 15 for 85 percent from the charity stripe. The Lady Gaels also shot 50 percent from the field winning 82-71.
The Lady Gaels then followed that up with another impressive road win, a 62-44 drubbing of Fairfield, the team picked to finish second in the MAAC preseason poll. The Lady Gaels got off to a quick lead and never trailed after the 18:38 mark of the first half and led by as many as 22. Finally, the Lady Gaels had their biggest test of the year. At home against Fordham on Wednesday, the Lady Gaels trailed for most of the game. In fact, twice the Rams had double digit leads in the second half. The second time was the largest lead, 60-47. A good number of young teams might have called it a night. Not the Lady Gaels. They started forcing turnovers and hitting threes. With a little over two minutes left, Thazina Cook, who had 21 points, hit a three to time the game at 64. Cook would then hit another three to put Iona up to stay 69-66 en route to a 72-69 win. Ivkovic led the way again with 22. As the Gaels have run out to an 8-2 start, its been different players picking up the slack. Against Rider, it was sophomore Suzi Fregosi who led the way with 21 points. Ivkovic had 18 points vs Fairfield, but 17 were in the first half. Kristina Ford picked up the slack in the second half and added 16 for the game. It shows in the statistics as Cook, Ivkovic, and Ford each average double figures and nine Lady Gaels average 10 or more minutes (it will be ten once Milica Paligoric works her way into the rotation).
The Lady Gaels face three tough road games, the toughest a game against perennial women's power Purdue at West Lafayette. And of course, Marist, the best team in the MAAC and winner of three games in the NCAA Tournament the past two seasons, stands in their way with a veteran team. But don't underestimate coach Tony Bozzella and this Lady Gaels team. The MAAC has a history of doing that. Last season, the Lady Gaels were also picked to finish sixth. They finished second and won their first round WNIT Game over Quinnipiac before losing to St John's. This team might just be the best Lady Gaels team yet. Just ask West Virginia. :-)