Category Archives: NEC Hoops

NEC In The Pros Update: Knights At The Next Level


It was a Fairleigh good weekend for a pair of former Knights.

While Fairleigh Dickinson alumna Danielle McEwan was busy bagging her second Professional Women’s Bowling Association Tour major event title, recently-graduated FDU sharp shooter Darnell Edge took a call from the Utah Jazz of the National Basketball Association.

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Summarizing the Best #NECMBB Players of the 2018-19 Season

With the 2019-20 college hoops season behind us, I wanted to get out one last post before we fully descend into baseball season. Most of you have already moved onto the offseason, scouring Verbal Commits daily for the latest transfer and commitment news. Nevertheless, I was hoping to put the final bow on the season even if it’s a little late. (Hey, I needed to finish my taxes on time!)

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Fairleigh Dickinson’s First Ever NCAA Tournament Victory Highlights the NEC’s Great Night

Tuesday night marked a magical night for the NEC. Three teams were in action, and all three played well, representing the league as best as anyone could have imagined going into the night. Please allow me to offer my thoughts on the action, starting with the biggest win in FDU’s history.

Good Luck Keeping the Knight’s Offense at Bay for 40 Minutes

Fairleigh Dickinson started their first NCAA tournament game since 2016 with 9 turnovers versus 2 field goals. The Prairie View Panthers, the SWAC champions, came out on fire, hitting 10 of their first 14 shots from behind the arc. Even the team’s starting 6’7″ forward, Devonte Patterson, made 3 of 5 from way downtown after going 10 of 58 (17.2%) from 3 for the season.

The Panthers’ quickness was bothering the Knights, bottling up passing lanes and preventing Jenkins and others from dribble penetrating to create. They came into the night sixth in the country in defensive turnover rate, and their early extractions only bolstered their case.

In other words, it didn’t seem to be Fairleigh Dickinson’s night. Trailing by double figures early in the second half must have felt like a 20-point deficit, but then Greg Herenda’s offense started to settle down like they did over the final eight minutes of the first half.

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5 Thoughts as FDU Bests Robert Morris for Spot in NEC Tourney Final

It wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing first half at the Rothman Center, but the Northeast Conference had to be pleased with how the final 20 minutes turned out. Both programs were exerting maximum effort and making plays on both ends of the floor. There were five ties and six lead changes over the course of the game, much of that occurring in the second half. The gym was electric. It was, quite simply, March Madness at its finest.

I was fortunate to be court side for the action, so please allow me to organize my thoughts in what turned out to be a great NEC tournament semifinal.

1) The Knight Guards Adaptability

The Robert Morris defense came as advertised, especially in the first half, holding the Knights to 1.00 point per possession and a bloated 32% turnover rate over 20 minutes. Their perimeter defense was fantastic throughout; the Colonials quick feet and fresh legs – Toole gave double-digit minutes to 8 players when it was all said and done – led to FDU settling for a series of contested perimeter jumpers. In the first half, the Colonials excelled in disrupting the Knights’ offensive flow and preventing their transition opportunities to a minimum.

Not much changed from the Colonials effort and execution in the second frame, instead the Knight guards realized that creating scoring opportunities inside the arc was a must. The philosophy didn’t pay dividends initially – Robert Morris held a daunting 10-point advantage midway through the second half, but the relentless drive of Darnell Edge and Jahlil Jenkins spurred Herenda’s offense when he needed it most.

“You could see they were hedging hard on ball screens and we weren’t getting open looks and they like to pack it in,” Edge said afterwards when asked Robert Morris’ game plan. “We knew we weren’t going to have a lot of wide open shots, so that’s why we wanted to get the ball in and then get it outside.”

Edge’s inability to develop a rhythm behind the arc was the epitome of the Colonials defensive prowess – he made just one triple in his 38 minutes. Rather than continually camp out on the perimeter, however, Edge got creative and converted 7 of 8 from inside the arc for a game-high 20 points. Those points didn’t come the typical way Edge is accustomed to, but he got his buckets nonetheless. His seven 2s tied a season high, when the senior scored as many against Rutgers in the season opener back in November. He successfully adapted from perimeter sharpshooter to mid-range guru. It’s not the most efficient thing to take long 2s, but it was an absolute necessity given the Colonials game plan.

The Knights still registered a 57.9% effective field goal percentage for the game, but that surely was the hardest FDU had to work this season to score 66 points, their third lowest scoring output this season in games they were victorious. The Knights attempted only 15 3s, Mike Holloway was constantly bodied and fronted (mostly by Yannis Mendy and Malik Petteway) en route to just 4 shot attempts, and the Colonials patented “turn them over” defense was in full swing (28% turnover rate, 17 turnovers in 60 possessions).

But Edge and Jenkins adapted their games in the second half, and it was a prime reason the Knights are travelling to Loretto for a Tuesday night championship showdown. Speaking of Jenkins….

2) A Winning Point Guard

The explosive Jenkins has been a model of efficiency as a sophomore – he was second in the NEC in assist to turnover ratio (2.2 to 1) and has been the main catalyst for why the Knights offense has run at a super efficient clip. But a quick gander at the semifinal box score tells a different story: the stoic floor general dished out just one dime against five turnovers. It was only the third time all season where Jenkins had 1 assist or fewer in a contest and the second time he committed five turnovers or more. That didn’t matter, as Jenkins morphed into a scoring point guard, because he had to. He found a way and did whatever it took to win.

He willed the shorthanded Knights by running the point for 38 minutes and literally touched the ball on every offensive possession. Andy Toole is certainly cognizant of how difficult it was to contain Jenkins, even when they bottled up his passing lanes.

“He just puts a lot of pressure on you because of his ability to get downhill,” Toole said after Robert Morris’ semifinal loss. “He’s constantly on ball screens, he’s constantly on the attack, and your guards consistently have to be ready. It makes him a hard matchup.”

Jenkins scored 18 points on 9 shots and got to the charity stripe 10 times, making 9. He was also disruptive on the defensive end, compiling 2 steals and getting out in transition a number of other times to give the Knights the best chance to score against a Robert Morris defense that couldn’t settle amid the tempo. By constantly being in motion and on the attack as a scorer, the Knights were able to survive. Jenkins relentless motor and ability to fly by defenders off the bounce is a marvel to watch.

3) FDU Getting Contributions Elsewhere

In the absence of Xzavier Malone-Key, the Knights bench got even shorter on Saturday. It was evident in the early going that Herenda was rolling with a 6-player rotation, for better or worse. Normally the shallow rotation isn’t an issue, nor has it been over the course of the Knights’ latest 12-2 stretch, yet Toole routinely employs an 8-player rotation, and today was no exception. Depth was a concern if you’re a FDU fan, but the play of freshman Brandon Powell was pivotal in helping quell those concerns throughout the contest. Especially since Kaleb Bishop found himself in foul trouble throughout the second half.

“A few weeks ago he was in the doghouse and I just told him, ‘you went from the doghouse to the Penthouse,” Herenda said of his freshman. “It was a team effort.” 

The rookie played his best basketball in the most important game of his life – at least up to this point. He posted a season high 163 KenPom offensive rating with a 11-point (on 4 shots), 3-rebound and 1-assist showing. It wasn’t an eye-popping performance by any stretch, but Powell did more than enough to ease the burden of the missing Malone-Key, even on the defensive end.

In addition to Powell’s contributions, Elyjah Williams effort in the second half should not go unnoticed. The energetic, versatile big led the team in cheerleading – he was imploring the crowd to make noise much of the time – and was a key contributor in the second half. After a quiet first half, Williams registered 4 points, 5 rebounds, 1 assist and 1 block in the second half. His two hustle offensive rebounds in the final minute of the game allowed FDU to secure a possession for 49 consecutive seconds (1:03 to 0:14) and led to two Jenkins FTs that extended the lead to 2 possessions.

4) A Legitimate Playoff Atmosphere

Fairleigh Dickinson has struggled to draw basketball crowds in the past, but their fans came out in impressive numbers for the 2 NEC tournament games this week. After finishing near the bottom of the league in terms of home attendance (482 fans per game) for 2018-19, the Rothman Center brought in 1190 and 1212 spectators, respectively, for the two playoff showdowns. Considering it is spring break on the Northern New Jersey campus, that’s a nice turnout for the #2 seed of the league.

The atmosphere was electric throughout as there were several moments in the second half where the crowd noise was deafening. Well done, Knight (and Colonial) fans! NEC spirit was alive and well in Hackensack on Saturday.

5) Saying Goodbye to Matty McConnell

There haven’t been many four or five-year seniors who’ve stuck it out at Robert Morris over the past decade, but one player that’ll surely reside in program lure is Matty McConnell. The senior had himself a game on Saturday, collecting 17 points, 4 assists and 2 steals in defeat. A presumed finalist for NEC Defensive Player of the Year, McConnell embodied the hard-nosed, tenacious defensive effort taught to perfection by Toole.

One notable fan and alum, Chris Cappella, poignantly paid his respects to No. 23 on Saturday afternoon.

In the post game press conference, Toole was reflecting on McConnell’s impact, both this season and in seasons past. “I thought he played an excellent game today; thought he should’ve been the defensive player of the year in the Northeast Conference,” Toole said before continuing on.

“He had his best season as a senior and I would’ve like to see him continue to compete for a championship and unfortunately he was not able to do that. But for four years he’s obviously made a number of winning plays. You know he’s a guy whose poured his heart into his team and his program and his jersey and it’s difficult when you can’t help him get to where he wants to get to as a player, which is compete for a NEC championship. So we are sorely going to miss him and all that he brought to the team and I’m happy he was able to compete as he did today.”

The senior guard finished with 1,102 points, 509 rebounds, 297 assists and 232 steals.

Enjoy the NEC finals in Loretto on Tuesday night! And before you do, please allow me to shamelessly promote my feature earlier this year on the NEC family ties between cousins Mike Holloway and NEC Player of the Year Keith Braxton.||

Thoughts and Reflections on the NEC Tournament Quarterfinals

March Madness has officially begun! For me, it honestly doesn’t get any better than watching four NEC tournament quarterfinals games on a weekday evening. The chaos that ensues for three hours is something to behold.

I did my best to absorb all of the Wednesday night action and wanted to record my thoughts of each contest. Even if it was with a heavy heart after my Pioneers lost a tough one to a veteran LIU Brooklyn squad. In fact, let’s start with the game in Fairfield…

Three-Point Shooting Carries LIU Brooklyn in NECT Upset

In one of my first years as a “glorious” blogger for NYC Buckets, I went to a game in Maryland. The road team lost that December matchup, mainly because they couldn’t hit the broad side of the barn. Afterwards, I sought out the head coach, but he wasn’t in much of a mood to talk to me. (And I don’t blame him.) His money quote to me that night ending up being something like, “If you don’t make shots on the road, you aren’t going to win.”

Ok, then.

As simplistic as that is – obviously the coach wasn’t about to share any of the hairy details for why his team shot so poorly – Anthony Latina likely felt the same way after the game last night. The Pioneers were hosting a NEC tournament quarterfinal for only the second time in nine seasons, and what unfortunately transpired was one of their worst shooting performances of the season. They converted a meager two triples out of 20 attempts after making 36.9% in 18 regular season games. Many of those misses were open looks, not necessary a product of LIU’s defense.

The charity stripe was unkind to the Pioneers as well – they left eight points off the scoreboard after shooting 63.6% in the contest, a far cry from their league leading 79.3% mark versus NEC competition. There may be no explanation other than the moment was possibly a little too big for the second least experienced team in the NEC.

On the flip side, a veteran LIU Brooklyn squad made the most of their opportunities from behind the arc, draining 11 of 24 (45.8%).

These two programs share some recent history in the NEC tournament, as each were exactly in the same position three years ago, at least with respect to their seeding. Back then in the 3-seed/6-seed matchup, the hosting Pioneers watched role player Iverson Fleming torch them in the first half, finishing the playoff contest with 18 points on 7 shots. Fleming had as many 3s (3 for 3) in the game as Sacred Heart had combined (3 for 20). This time around was almost like deja vu for Latina.

After making just two triples all season, Eral Penn made 3 of 5 from long distance. Jashaun Agosto, known far more for his ability to go downhill and attack the rim, made all three of his 3-point attempts. One of those buckets came at a critical time. With the shot clock winding down and the Blackbirds up three late, Agosto’s attempt at the top of the key found nothing but nylon, giving LIU a 2-possession cushion. As the old saying goes, guard play wins championships.

In all, six of Derek Kellogg’s players hit a 3-pointer and their free throw shooting down the stretch was just enough to keep the charging Pioneers at bay. When you hold a 27-point advantage from 3 and shoot 14 percentage points better from the charity stripe, you’re winning most of the time. You can afford to lose the battle on the backboards (-6), score less points in the paint (-12) and commit more turnovers (-5) as long as you do one thing significantly better than your opponent. The Blackbirds made shots on the road, and they won. Sometimes, it’s as simple as that.

A Highlight Reel in Hackensack

The Knights came into the NEC tournament as one of the hottest teams in the league, winning 11 of their last 13. They won those 11 by an average of 10 points per victory. They shot a blistering 51.1% (214 of 418) on their 2s, 47.3% on their 3s (88 of 186) and dished out 165 assists against 131 turnovers for a splendid 1.26 A/TO on those victorious nights. Their offense had basically matched the program’s incredible level three years prior, when a core of Darian Anderson, Stephon Jiggetts, Marques Townes and Earl Potts lead the league in offensive efficiency. The high flying, shot-making, crisp passing Knights under Greg Herenda were back and seniors Mike Holloway and Darnell Edge were a part of it for the second time.

Wagner was up against an offensive juggernaut, but if anyone could quell FDU’s attack it would be defensive mistro Bashir Mason, right? The start of the game were promising enough for Mason’s Seahawks. Two triples by Romone Saunders and Elijah Davis and two empty possessions by FDU spotted Wagner a 6-0 lead more than 3:30 in. And then the fireworks started in Hackensack. What transpired was an offensive masterpiece – the Knights closed the first half out with 43 points on their next 23 possession for an absurd 1.87 points per possession. In those 23 possessions, the Knights came up empty just four times, while scoring in their final seven times down the court.

When the dust settled, Wagner didn’t know what hit them, trailing 43-14. Five Knights scored in double figures led by NEC all-conference second teamer Holloway and his 18 points on 7 shots. The ever versatile Elyjah Williams had 17, while sharpshooter Darnell Edge “only” contributed with 15. Jahlil Jenkins was his heady floor general self, dishing out six assists versus just one turnover. How he didn’t make an all-conference team is beyond me, but I digress.

Greg Herenda now possesses a career record of 5-3 in the NEC tournament, including a perfect 3-0 mark at home. That flawless record at the Rothman Center will be tested with Andy Toole and the defensive minded Colonials coming to town. Does Matty McConnell guard Darnell Edge? Who do you match up on the suddenly resurgent Holloway? What is Toole’s game plan for keeping Jenkins in front of his defenders?

It’ll be a fascinating chess match on Saturday, but for now, let’s sit back and admire the beautiful team basketball Herenda’s group has exhibited over the past six weeks. It sure is fun to watch them in transition…

On the offensive glass…

And in the half court with the sick stepback…

This is a special offensive unit.

Robert Morris Finds a Way

Coming into tonight, the Terriers haven’t been good on the road (3-6 in NEC play) whereas the Colonials have taken well to the cozy NAC gym with a 7-2 mark against conference foes. Andy Toole had bested Glenn Braica twice this season, and has gone 7-2 at home in the NEC tournament. Conversely, Braica is 2-7 in the conference playoffs with his only two victories coming during the Terriers magical 23-win season in 2014-15.

Want more kindling on the fire? The best defense in the NEC is a perfect 11-0 in league play when they hold their opponents to under 65 points or less. St. Francis Brooklyn could only muster 0.88 points per possession in their two losses (49 and 62 points, respectively) to their Pennsylvania rival. Throw in a 400 mile trip from Brooklyn to Moon Township and all signs point toward an easy victory for the hosting Colonials. Right?

Not so fast.

(Image of KenPom Chart)

At that point in the contest, the Terriers held a 55-47 lead with 4 minutes remaining. KenPom gave them a 95% chance to pull out it out and would have given the program their first NEC tournament victory since their memorable 2014-15 campaign.

But then, Matty McConnell happened.

McConnell was awesome in what could’ve been his final game as a Colonial – he finished with 21 points, 7 rebounds, 3 steals and 2 blocks (!) in what turned out to be an overtime victory. But it was also the Colonials defense that kept them alive in regulation, holding the Terriers to one point in their final 7 possessions in regulation. Malik Petteway, the modern day Chris Wray, put his stamp on the defensive effort.

The defense continued the momentum into the overtime, holding the shellshocked Terriers to one 3-pointer in five possessions. By then, the Colonials had a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. It was a phenomenal comeback led by McConnell and, surprise suprise, an Andy Toole coached defense. The victory was Toole’s 13th NEC tournament win against seven defeats.

Survive and Advance

It’s not easy having a bullseye on your back. Saint Francis University learned that lesson the hard way in last season’s NEC tournament when the 7-seeded FDU Knights upset the 2-seeded Red Flash in Loretto. In a similar situation yesterday, Rob Krimmel’s team jumped out to a comfortable 18-point lead at the half on the visiting Bryant Bulldogs.

One sluggish second half later and the Red Flash survived with a 4-point victory. It wasn’t pretty in that second stanza, but like Mount St. Mary’s (over Sacred Heart by 3 points in 2017 NECT QF) and Fairfield Dickinson (over SFU by 2 points in the 2016 NEC QF) before them, all you have to do is survive and advance. And that’s exactly what the kids from Loretto did. They may have only scored 1.03 ppp against the league’s worst defense from an efficiency standpoint, but the name of the game is to win.

The big four of SFU – Keith Braxton, Isaiah Blackmon, Jamaal King and Andre Wolford – combined for 54 of the team’s 67 points. They’ll be tested on Saturday when the defending NECT champions come to town having won 5 of their last 6.

The road to a NEC tournament championship is never easy.


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