“His will to win was so infectious. We were at our lowest and Zaid sparked the whole thing by doing what Quinnipiac does.”
Those are comments from Quinnipiac head coach Tom Moore following a 71-68 victory over Hampton University earlier this year in which Zaid Hearst poured in a then career-high 22 points as he willed the Bobcats to victory in a non-conference contest.
The 6’4” junior guard from Bethesda, MD has emerged as a leader for Quinnipiac this year, both on and off the court. Ranked among the top two on the team in most offensive categories including points, field goal percentage, 3-point percentage, and free throw percentage, while also playing strong defense, Hearst has become a focus of opposing scouting reports this season. Now an upperclassman, Hearst remarked on his new role as a leader on the team which he shares with many other starters.
“I definitely see myself as a leader,” Hearst said in an interview Friday. “With me, Ike [Azotam], Ousmane [Drame], and Umar [Shannon], there’s no one leader on this team. It’s like a bunch of different leaders, because we all depend on each other. The young guys all depend on us in certain aspects. James Ford will look up to me more than he would Umar because I play James Ford’s position, and Kasim [Chandler] will look up to Umar but we all have a leadership role. We all know that in order to be a good team we all have to be a leader to the younger guys.”
Hearst has steadily increased his scoring over his time at Quinnipiac. Starting 27 games during his freshman season in 2011-12, Hearst scored at a clip of 7.2 ppg. He averaged double-digits in points during his sophomore campaign (10.8 ppg) and has nearly doubled his freshman mark this season, averaging 13.5 ppg midway through the year. This jump in scoring has been helped by four 20-point games this year, the most on the team. Hearst is on pace to score 378 points this year, which would leave him just 57 points shy of the 1,000-point mark through his first three seasons.
The most drastic increase in Hearst’s numbers this season though comes in the rebounding category. Quinnipiac has developed a reputation for being one of the top rebounding teams in the country under Moore, but it has been Hearst’s aggressiveness from the guard position this year which has allowed the Bobcats to maintain that reputation without getting consistent minutes from a third forward.
In years past, Quinnipiac has had a forward at the caliber of Azotam or Drame to come off the bench and grab rebounds. Now that those two are the starting duo down low, Hearst’s development on the boards has allowed players like freshmen AJ Sumbry and Alain Chigha, the next wave of Bobcat big men, to take their time adjusting to the college game.
“A lot had to do with Coach Brijesh [Patel], the strength and conditioning coach, because he worked a lot with me over the summer,” Hearst said. “I got a lot of opportunity to just work on my game and work on my strength. I’ve been able to rebound; I’ve just been able to jump over people sometimes. I’ve just been working on it and it’s improved.”
This year Hearst has increased his rebounding numbers from 3.8 rpg to a whopping 8.0 rpg which has him ranked among the top 100 in the nation and in the top 5 among pure guards. Lined up with Azotam and Drame, the trio makes up three of the top four rebounders in the MAAC and has the team ranked at the top of the conference in all related categories.
“He really takes a lot of pride in that he rebounds the ball great for a 6’4″ kid,” one opposing coach said about Hearst. “It’s just about his motor being so good and he gets extra possessions for them, so now you’re talking about a fourth player too. When you’re talking about a team that has four players that are consistently putting numbers up, they’re very difficult to stop. Those teams will win a lot of games when they have four guys doing that.”
Hearst continued his stellar play entering the conference schedule this year. On Jan. 6, he topped his Hampton performance by scoring 23 points against Iona for a new career-high.
“He’s a strong, strong-willed young man,” Moore said following the game against the Gaels. “He comes from a good family, well-raised, he practices hard every day, there’s no nonsense to what he’s trying to do out there. We have a lot of invested kids in our success, but he might be the most invested kid in our team’s success. I’m really happy for him when good things happen.”
“A lot has to do with my mom,” Hearst said. “She’s the hardest worker I know. Just seeing her work, that makes me say, ‘This is my job,’ so I’ve got to work as hard as she does. Being behind people like James Johnson and seeing James Feldeine, one thing they always told me was that hard work always beats talent and I just keep working hard and it’s paying off right now.”
The MAAC is well known for its strong guard play. With prolific scorers such as Iona’s Sean Armand, Manhattan’s George Beamon, Canisius’ Billy Baron, and Niagara’s Antoine Mason dotting the conference landscape, it can be a challenge standing out in the backcourt. It’s also challenging when you’re asked to defend those types of scorers, but Hearst is not shying away.
“Going into this conference, I knew there were a lot of good guards,” Hearst said. “After last year in the Paradise Jam playing against Momo Jones when he actually scored about 40 on us, I really realized in order to be a good team you’ve got to stop other teams’ best players. Going into each game, I want to guard the best player no matter if it’s a 1, 2, 3, or sometimes even a 4, so I just thrive on that.”
There is always room to improve no matter what level you’re at, and Hearst keeps that thought in mind through every practice and every game. When asked about his biggest improvement over the last two and a half years, Hearst pointed to mental toughness as one attribute that he takes pride in.
“As a freshman I used to make mistakes and then I used to show it a lot on my face. I play with a lot of pride and a lot of energy, so sometimes when I would make a bad play or two bad plays I would hang my head or something like that, but now if I make two bad plays I just worry about the next one. I don’t show it as much, and it’s definitely made a big improvement and I’ll continue to improve on it.”
Hearst has taken that pride and energy and become one of the most complete guards in the MAAC conference.
Vincent Simone will be chronicling Quinnipiac’s move to the MAAC and helping cover the conference this season for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone. Ryan Restivo contributed reporting for this story.