Photo courtesy of Dave’s Joint.
By David Cordova
The month of March is here and it’s time for teams to make their bids for the NCAA Tournament. But for many of the teams in the small conferences, the conference tournament is everything. For them, one loss may mean either a trip to the NIT or the end of the season.
All of that is true in the Northeastern Conference. In that league, the best team doesn’t always win, but it is never pretty. It’s a grind, it’s a dog fight, but it’s a fight to finish first. Unlike other major tournaments, the playoff games are held on the campus sites, which adds to the allure of the league. There’s nothing like playing the championship game at home.
In the case of Fairleigh Dickinson University, it’s a great time to be in the playoffs. The Knights have been on a roll this season, and have been battle tested with a tough non-conference schedule in which they beat in-state teams like Princeton and St. Peter’s, but lost to teams such as Rutgers, NJIT, Providence and UMass.
However, it helped them during their NEC slate, as they went 12-6 in conference play in the regular season and finished second. On Wednesday night, they showed how bad they want to be champions, when they unleashed a huge attack on Wagner that brought them an 84-46 victory, and brought them to the semifinals, which will be taking place tomorrow at noon at the Rothman Center, which is their homecourt.
“It was just one of those nights, for us, and it wasn’t Wagner,” said head coach Greg Herenda, who is in his sixth season at the helm for the Knights. “Tonight, we were down 6-0 [early in the first half], and I thought we were going to be shut out. And my guys really stepped up, we played defense in the first half, maybe as well as we’ve played in the six years that I’ve been here. Last year, I think we held to 19 at the half. Tonight, we held them to 14 at the half, so, it was our defense, our rebounding and our ability to get out on the break. And then we made shots.”
On Wednesday night, the Knights were buoyed the tough defense of 6-foot-2 senior shooting guard Darnell Edge and 6-foot sophomore point guard Jahlil Jenkins, both of whom are two of the quickest players in the conference. They were also helped by the tough post play of 6-foot-8 senior Mike Holloway, Jr., 6-foot-8 sophomore Elyjah Williams and 6-foot-8 Kaleb Bishop.
When asked about the quickness of Edge and Jenkins, Herenda replied, “I don’t want to give everybody all of our secrets, but we have a five-second fast break drill. When we get a rebound in practice, we want to get a shot off in under five seconds. And that is doable in the NBA, it’s doable in high levels of college basketball, and Darnell is as fast without the ball as I’ve seen, and Jahlil is faster with the ball as I’ve seen. Those guys fly, and we want to run, and they’ve bought into it. So you’re right, we have two really good guards.”
On the frontcourt of Holloway, Williams and Bishop, he added: “I love them all. I’m not just saying that because I’m in front of a microphone. Each kid, individually, has so much talent and so much good in them that has to come out. So if we play big, we’re okay.”
The Knights also received contributions from other players such as 6-foot-2 freshman shooting guard Brandon Powell, 5-foot-11 sophomore point guard Tyler Jones and 6-foot-5 junior forward Pat McNamara, who all gave out quality minutes when they were on the floor.
Tomorrow afternoon, they will play their next opponent in the NEC semifinals at noon at home against Robert Morris, who knocked off St. Francis Brooklyn, 69-65, also on Wednesday night at their home gym in Moon Township, Pennsylvania. During the season, the Colonials and the Knights have met twice, going 1-1, as Robert Morris won the first matchup in their conference home opener on January 3rd, as they won, 69-62. On February 2nd, FDU won the rematch at their home gym, 81-63.
Now that these teams are playing for the third time this season, there is now one thing at stake, a chance to make the championship game, which will be played this Tuesday, March 12th, at a location to be named later. And there is something that both teams want. The chance at the Big Dance, also known as the NCAA Tournament. Robert Morris won the NEC title twice in this decade, in 2010 and 2015. FDU won their NEC title in 2016.
With both programs having success in recent years, there’s no reason to believe that they can’t make it happen. But one thing is simple, a victory is needed to get to that grand stage.
When asked what can be expected of them tomorrow afternoon, Herenda replied, “We have to repeat the performance [against Wagner]. We have to go hard and rebound and we have a formula that has been working. We just won 12 out of 14 basketball games, and we talk about it all the time, it’s not who we play, it’s how we play. And tonight, we played a really tough [team]. Wagner brought it hard. We couldn’t get a rebound, and we were down 6-0, and I was terrified, but deep down I always have a lot of faith in my team, and we just – you know Darnell made a big three, made some buckets early to get us back, and then we got a lead and we got into our flow, but to do it again, against someone else is our job. And to do it to that level, if we can do it, that’s great. But we’re not here to win by, two points or five points, we’re here to win basketball games, and now we’re 1-0 [in the playoffs] and we have another game to play on Saturday. And it’s March and it’s special.”
Tomorrow afternoon, against Robert Morris, it’s all or nothing for the Knights of Fairleigh Dickinson University. It’s do or die, win or go home. But after what took place in the Wagner game, where they dominated by leading 43-14 at halftime and never looked back, it goes to show that they’re not going to go down without a fight. Their mission is to fight to the very end. That’s what March in the Northeastern Conference is all about.