WEST HARTFORD, Conn. – The ball moved quickly, everyone seemed to touch it, extra passes were made, and – most importantly – shots were falling as Quinnipiac was rolling Tuesday night at intrastate rival Hartford.
At one point, the Bobcats were 8-12 and then 10-16 from three-point range, and after Gio McLean drove with ease to the hoop and scored, Quinnipiac led 60-47 with 10:30 left and appeared to be cruising to its second straight victory, even without its best post player, Chaise Daniels.
But the cruise hit the proverbial iceberg at that point. Possessions that didn’t end in turnovers finished wih rushed shots at the end of the shot clock. Hartford alowly started to gain momentum and scored 14 points the rest of the way. Quinnipiac showed a lot of guts and Gio McLean hit an eventual game-winning shot with 1:16 left to give it a 68-66 road win despite scoring just eight points in the final quarter of the contest, and – coupled with a win at Canisius Saturday – may tell us plenty about the mental makeup of the Bobcats going forward (certainly about McLean, more on him later).
Justin Graham had a little better look a few seconds earlier, but it didn’t go down either for the Hawks. pic.twitter.com/TlTQoFNkZA
— Ray Curren (@currenrr) December 10, 2015
You can forgive Tom Moore, though, if the ending of Tuesday’s game gave him unwanted flashbacks to last season. With a veteran core of really good players in Zaid Hearst, Ousmane Drame, and Ike Azotam, the Bobcats finished as the top offensive rebounding team in all the land (42.1%, the third time in four years they did it), were 27th nationally in eFG% defense (and sixth on two-pointers), and yet somehow finished with Moore’s first losing conference record in his nine-year head coaching career and a tough to swallow loss in the first round of the MAAC Tournament against Marist. How? Well, mostly they couldn’t shoot. Their 44.0 eFG% was a dreadful 335th, and probably also played a part in their 20.4% turnover rate, which was an only slightly better 268th. So somehow a team that got back 42.1% of its missed shots finished the campaign at 206th in offensive efficiency, which is difficult to do. And as Moore has pointed out, many of the 15 losses last year were tight games in which the Bobcats just couldn’t score down the stretch, games filled with a lot of the ugly possessions that returned like unwanted ghosts late in Tuesday’s game.
There were several candidates in 2014-15, but perhaps none was worse than a 54-50 home loss to Hartford, in which the Bobcats shot 0-15 from behind the arc and finished with a 32.7 eFG%, frustrated until the end on the offensive end with Hearst forced to shoot on almost every possession down the stretch. Despite almost literally a brand new roster, especially with Daniels out (he is expected to return from a knee injury in 4-6 weeks), there are signs – the first 30 minutes of Tuesday’s game for one – that things could improve for Quinnipiac, although the numbers are not good early (294th in offensive efficiency, 320th in turnover rate and the Bobcats had 21 turnovers Tuesday). McLean is the first and foremost reason, but Moore is well aware what happened with Hearst last season, and one option probably won’t get it done going forward.
“With this team and our lack of experience – I don’t want to say that we’re young because we’ve brought in fifth-year guys and JUCO transfers – but we’re inexperienced together,” Moore said. “I thought four of the five guys we started have never played together until like three weeks ago. Where that seems to be manifesting itself, where we have bad stretches is on team offense. Me as a coach, I have to do a better job at somehow settling us and getting us different looks and better stuff to get us calmed down.”
When MAAC play resumes in January, four of Quinnipiac’s first five games are against what appear to be the conference contenders (Iona, Monmouth, Siena, Canisius), and if the offensive team that was at Chase Family Arena for the first 30 minutes can stay present, the Bobcats (picked seventh in the preseason MAAC poll), might just be able to surprise some people. What else did we learn from (West) Hartford on Tuesday:
1) Gio McLean is capable of leading Quinnipiac Tuesday marked his seventh straight game in double figures, and 22 points was his season (and obviously career) high. He is perhaps the biggest “what if” about last season for the Bobcats, but finally eligible, he is clearly the leader of this team. But that’s a tough spot to put him in, especially for someone who has never played Division I basketball until last month. What is most impressive to me is his shooting, he’s now at 20-43 from three-point range and that may be the key to opening everything else up.
“It’s absolutely hard for me, but that’s what I signed up for,” McLean said. “If it has to be done, I want to do it. Winning is everything to me, so I’ll do whatever it takes.”
2) Second half will give Hartford some confidence The Hawks fell to 3-7, and things were going to be tough for them anyway before they lost center John Carroll for the season. Like Quinnipiac, they have virtually a brand new roster, and just two players that appeared last year against the Bobcats (Taylor Dyson and Justin Graham) did so Tuesday. They were out-rebounded 44-26, but it wasn’t as bad as that number would indicate (Quinnipiac was at 40% offensive rebounding). George Blagojevic certainly has offensive potential and the three-guard lineup of J.R. Lynch, Justin Graham, and Pancake Thomas will create some matchup problems. After Stony Brook and Albany, no one looks particularly strong in America East and the Hawks will have plenty of chances to pick up a few wins on nights where they can shoot the ball well (7-26 from three Tuesday).
“At halftime, we talked about before the game making it really uncomfortable for them to run their offense,” Hartford coach John Gallagher said. “We did not do that. Obviously, in the second half, we did, but it wasn’t enough. So the message is I’m proud, but I’m not satisfied. Proud of the effort in the second half, but not satisfied because it wasn’t 40 minutes. We have to change the way we play because of an injury. He’s out. That’s it. It’s not going to happen overnight, so we’re evolving. We’re better than we were a week ago.”
3) Figuring out the roster time With so many new players, it doesn’t seem like Moore and Gallagher quite have a complete handle on their rotations quite yet, both of whom having the issue exacerbated by losing their starting center. For the Hawks, Jack Hobbs made all three of his shots from behind the arc, but got only 11 minutes because of defensive concerns, while Taylor Dyson – a starter for much of last season – also got only 17 minutes, with Evan Cooper getting 26. For Moore, UIC graduate transfer Will Simonton is suddenly in the mix and doing enough to earn more minutes, doing so at the expense of people like athletic but raw freshman Abdulai Buntu. Ayron Hutton, an All-MAAC Rookie selection last season, has been plagued by turnovers, but got 16 minutes and hit both of his three-point attempts while Dmitri Floras was limited to 10 and Daniel Harris was scoreless in 25. Both teams have a lot of options, and it may be a matter of who is hot on a given night.
“The guys that we need big offensive nights from don’t have 90 games in a college uniform right now to draw experience from and know that things are going to be OK when teams make runs at us,” Moore said. “Even Gio had never played at this level until Nov. 13th (actually Nov. 18 because he was suspended for the first game). A kid like Abdluai was in high school last year. Even James Ford was our third or fourth guy in the past. We had teams like that at UConn, we’ve been blessed, we’ve been lucky that we’ve always had this assembly line of guys that were ready to play next. We’ve never needed first-year guys to count on. It’s always not fair for any of them, but that’s where we are right now.”