The last night of the Holiday Festival brought season's beatings for St. John's and Hofstra Monday night at Madison Square Garden. And to the uninitiated, both losses were especially bad from a cosmetic viewpoint.
The Red Storm established itself as a Big East contender with its 9-1 start, but a 71-66 loss in the final to Ivy League Cornell, even a two-time defending champion, takes off a little luster. You know, for anyone who hasn't seen 7-foot Big Red center Jeff Foote and the collection of outstanding marksmen that surround him.
If the Pride (7-5) had suffered its 61-52 consolation game loss to Davidson last season when it had Stephan Curry, an NBA lottery pick, it would have been expected. But the Wildcats don't have Curry and are off to only a 4-8 start. Hofstra coach Tom Pecora called Davidson the "best 4-8 team in the country," and it wasn't out of deference to Wildcats coach Bob McKillop, who hired Pecora as his assistant at Long Island Lutheran back in 1984. Fact is, the Southern Conference Wildcats lost to Cornell on an overtime buzzer-beater, lost to the top two mid-majors, Gonzaga and Butler, and lost to four other schools from more prestigious conferences.
St. John's got off to a hot start, hitting seven of 10 shots from three-point range in the first half. But Cornell never wavered even after trailing by as many as 11 points in the first half. Sure enough, in the second half, the Red Storm stopped trying to go inside to tilt at the windmill that Foote resembles when he spreads his wingspan and began settling for three-pointers. The result was 37 percent shooting in the second half, including 28.6 percent from three.
Cornell coach Steve Donohue suggested St. John's fell into the trap of being casual when the ball was going down and went away from its strength in the second half. "I thought they got into some bad habits even though they were making shots," Donohue said of the Red Storm. "They weren't driving the ball as hard [as they usually do.] They weren't defending as hard as I thought they could at times.
"Let me say something. This is a great St. John's team. Norm [Roberts] does a great job, particularly on the defensive end."
The lesson wasn't lost on St. John's' players. D.J. Kennedy said they didn't get out to cover the three-point line as well as they should have. "We forgot our [defensive] principles," Kennedy said. "They have great shooters, and they capitalized on every open look."
The Red Storm has one more tuneup-type of game against Bryant Wednesday night at Carnesecca Arena before opening Big East play on New Year's Eve at Georgetown. If nothing else, Cornell's Foote provided good preparation for Hoyas big man Greg Monroe.
Hofstra doesn't have another game until Dec. 29 at Florida Atlantic, the last test before Colonial Athletic Association play opens Jan. 2 at the Mack Physical Fitness Center against William & Mary. But the Pride figures to get in plenty of work between now and then.
Pecora was musing after the game about how much he likes to practice. He canceled a planned day off on Tuesday and also suggested the Pride might practice on Christmas Eve and Christmas night. At one point against Davidson, Pecora noticed he had four freshmen on the floor, and he said that's a trend that might continue if the veterans don't produce as well as they have in the past.
Leading scorer Charles Jenkins had a tough time against Davidson, which had enough size to protect the rim. Pecora told him to stop forcing his game. But Jenkins isn't as much of a concern as senior Cornelius Vines and junior Nathaniel Lester neither of whom had a good tournament and who were a combined three for 12 against Davidson.
Freshman point guard Chaz Williams and freshman forward Halil Kanacevic were the Pride's two best players last night and, really, in both tournament games. "The learning curve speeds up for the freshmen because we're not getting much from the vets," Pecora said. "You're going to be better with Chaz and Halil getting these kind of minutes."
Two losses in the Holiday Festival don't mean it won't be a Happy New Year for St. John's and Hofstra, but it certainly was a sobering experience that emphasizes how much harder both must work to be as successful as their talent suggests they should be.