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Hartford Holds Off Maine

February 11, 2008 Columns No Comments



High-Flying Hawks Continue Their Roll

by Sam Perkins

HARTFORD, Conn. – The Hartford men’s basketball team certainly lived up to their name Wednesday night, as the Hawks soared above the rim for almost a half-dozen crowd-pleasing dunks. However, the long range heroics of Morgan Sabia were involved in the game winner, as the freshman canned a long three-pointer with seventeen seconds left before Hartford locked down on Maine’s Mark Socoby for the first time all night. They prevented the sharpshooter from getting a clean look on his last second shot to seal the game.

Entering the game off of arguably their biggest win of the season, a convincing 71-62 win over the then-second place Binghamton Bearcats, another win for the Hawks would put them right back in the thick of the jumble at the top of the America East conference. Hartford provided some early acrobatics, as the Hawks threw down three dunks in the first six and a half minutes.

Freshman Anthony Minor provided a spark early on, taking it right at the Black Bears. Minor’s game seems to improve nightly, and the freshman played with an ever-growing confidence, taking the ball right at Maine’s Sean McNally for the first points of the night. After the teams traded misses, Minor got the ball on the right wing and drove in on the much larger McNally. As Minor elevated, he lost the ball amid a great deal of contact, but in one motion caught the lose ball right above the cylinder and slammed it home.

After a three by Kiamondre Owes, Minor went back to work, scoring on a nifty layup, followed by a high-flying two-handed slam off of an alley-oop feed by Jaret Von Rosenberg. As Minor hung on the rim momentarily, flirting with a technical foul and bringing the crowd to its feet, it became evident just how much the Hawks’ young forward has grown during the season.

“Anthony is someone whom all year I have gone with and stayed with and kept in that lineup because I wanted to force him to develop,” reflected Hartford head coach Dan Liebovitz. “I know how he is as a person, and when Jaret was hurt early on it was an easy decision for me to say ‘well lets take this as an opportunity to throw Anthony in the fire. Let’s continue to develop Anthony.’ And that’s something that I think has been a key to our season.”

After Minor’s six-point spurt put Hartford ahead early, Sabia, Hartford’s other starting freshman forward, went to work, nailing a deep three-pointer. The three-ball has been Sabia’s trademark all year, as he has been hitting an astounding 45 percent from downtown, and seems to be getting more accurate and more confident from behind the arc with every game. Sabia also has a tendency to take, and hit, his threes when they matter the most. His inspired play, which has coincided with the Hawks’ ascension up the America East standings, has found him in the thick of the hunt for the conference’s Rookie of the Year award.

Additionally, his combination of shooting ability and 6’8″ frame have drawn immediate comparisons with Albany gunner Brent Wilson. While it is certainly a compliment to compare Sabia, a freshman, to a player renowned as the best shooting big man in the league, it is unfair to pigeonhole Sabia as simply a shooter, as he already has a much more diverse game than Wilson, with the ability to put the ball of the floor and get to the rack. And one thing is for sure, Brent Wilson can only dream of having the kind of ups that Sabia displayed on his second bucket, hanging above the rim before finishing off an Andres Torres lob for an impressive alley-oop slam in traffic.

Torres continued to give Leibovitz good minutes off of the bench, and minutes after setting up Sabia’s slam, he buried a pull-up three from about twenty-six feet away to put the Hawks up 16-12 with eleven and a half minutes left in the first half.

But Torres’ contributions on the season have been far bigger than what shows up on the stat sheet, as he is easily the fastest player in the conference and gives the Hawks an added dimension on the court. Torres also does a great job of running the offense, and in living up to his nickname, “fire ant,” he is a pest on defense. Nowhere was this more evident than when he pressured Owes into his second foul, as Owes threw an elbow after Torres’ pressure defense became too much for him.

Unfortunately for Hartford, after Torres’ three the Hawks offense seemed to slip into neutral, and the pace of the game slowed down, a pace that favors Maine. The Black Bears slowly began to put points up on the board, many in the post on second- and third-chance put-backs, and what was a 16-12 Hartford lead became a 23-17 Maine advantage. Hartford played almost the entire first half without Warren McLendon, who still appears to be in coach Leibovitz’ doghouse after a team-mandated suspension, leaving the Hawks extremely small in the post and allowing the Black Bears to grab numerous offensive rebounds and score off of their own misses.

“They’re a big team, probably one of the bigger more physical teams in our conference,” said Leibovitz, adding, “They’re a tough team for us to match up with.”

The first half could have gotten more out of hand had Maine truly taken advantage of their size advantage, however the biggest Black Bear, 6’9″, 310-pound Brian Andre, remained on the bench. During the non-conference season Andre had established himself not only as the best low-post scorer on the team, but as the best center in the conference, dismantling the front lines of Providence and Florida State. That has made Maine Head Coach Ted Woodward’s decision to drastically reduce his center’s playing time a bit baffling, especially against a frontline like the one Hartford used for much of the game.

The Black Bears’ failure to capitalize on the undersized Hawks, especially while Hartford’s offense was stagnant, would come back to bite them, as Maine’s lead never got bigger than six. The Hawks found enough of a groove to get their heads above water, and when McLendon checked in with 3:53 seconds left in the half, Hartford’s offense took on a new dimension.

With Hartford trailing 29-26, McLendon easily shed a double team and converted on a tough up and under in the post, and Maine immediately shifted their defensive emphasis towards doubling down on McLendon every time down the court. The Black Bears’ increased attention on the Hawks’ center, however, freed up Hartford’s dangerous outside shooters, and Hartford closed out the half behind a three-point barrage from Joe Zeglinski and Brian Glowiak and entered the intermission with a 35-30 lead.

Hartford opened the second half with a definite carry-over of the momentum they closed out the first half with, and after a Mark Socoby three, the Hawks went on an 11-4 run behind the three-point shooting of Sabia and Zeglinski. With 15:27 left and a nine-point lead (the biggest of the game, 46-37), Hartford was on the verge of blowing the game open. After Junior Bernal missed a jumper for the Black Bears, and Hartford came away with the rebound, one good possession could have put the game away for Hartford.

However, Torres took an ill-advised three with a lot of time left on the shot clock, and Maine went on a 10-0 run behind three’s from Socoby, Owes, and McNally, and suddenly the lead and the momentum swung back in Maine’s favor.

What was interesting for the Hawks, during Maine’s run, was that Zeglinski, Hartford’s unquestioned leader, remained on the bench during the Black Bears’ comeback, and the Hawks never called timeout to put Zeglinski back on the floor or to calm his troops.

“What frustrated me was the possession where we were up nine and we come down, and it was a great time to have a great possession and put some passes on the ball, and Andres takes a shot from about twenty-five feet, and I don’t know where that came from,” said Leibovitz. “And we don’t have Joe in the game and they make their run.”

However, for Leibovitz, this team and this year has never been about the here and now, but rather a growing process building towards a larger goal down the road, and that is reflected in his coaching style.

“You always look back and say ‘should I have called timeout here.’ And sometimes I like to see how my team is going to react, because I want them to grow as a team. We have a young team. I feel like every time something goes bad, if I call a timeout I throw a band aid on everything and they never grow up. We’re going to be, someday, in a championship game without timeouts, and I want to see how they react.”

Hartford didn’t sputter for long, as McLendon single-handedly swung the momentum back in Hartford’s favor by rattling off six straight points, four of which came in momentous fashion. A possession after the Hawks center made two free throws, McLendon and Zeglisnki ran a pick-and roll play to perfection, and Maine could only watch as McLendon threw down a monster two-handed slam, almost ripping the rim off. In fact, the backboard and shot clock were still violently shaking when Maine’s Jordan Cook scored on a on a lay-up on the other end of the floor.

McLendon one-upped himself on the following possession, as with what his first dunk had in back-board shaking power, his second more than equaled in pure disrespect. After taking a feed from Von Rosenberg at the free-throw line, McLendon (generiously listed at 6’6″) drove right at the 6’10” Cook. As McLendon left his feet both Cook, and McNally, who had rotated over for help defense, went for the block. But McLendon elevated over, and posterized, both defenders, and threw down one of the meanest one-handed tomahawk jams the conference has seen, resulting in an explosion from the small but vocal crowd, and gave the Hawks a 52-49 lead.

But to Maine’s credit, the Black Bears wouldn’t back down, and Socoby seemed to hit shot after shot from behind the arc. After being held to five first-half points, Socoby exploded in the second, hitting all sorts of threes in traffic, several of which resulted in him sprawled on the floor. The Hawks’ Achilles heel all season has been getting burned from behind the arc, and it seemed that once again hot three-point shooting would be their downfall, as Socoby drilled a twenty-six footer with four minutes left to give Maine a four point lead at 63-59.

But Hartford has never been a team to go quietly into the night, and the Hawks went on a quick 4-0 run behind Sabia and Zeglinski to tie the game at 63. Socoby again answered back with a nifty jumper in traffic to put Maine up two with fifty-two seconds left. But the Hawks answered back again, behind a three-point dagger from Von Rosenberg.

With thirty seconds left, the writing appeared to be on the wall for Hartford, as Maine’s Philippe Tchekane Bofia appeared to switch pivot feet and take an extra step on his way to the hoop. No traveling violation was called, and Bofia hit a tough layup in traffic, giving Maine a 67-66 lead with thirty seconds left. It was the kind of non-call and basket combination that would take the life out of most teams, but not Hartford.

After a quick timeout, the Hawks set up to run their last play, as Von Rosenberg saw an opening towards the hoop and drove in. But the Maine defense collapsed on Von Rosenberg, and Hartford’s play, drawn up on the sidelines, appeared to collapse. But Sabia, playing with the court vision of a seasoned veteran, saw an opening at the top of the key and called for the ball. Von Rosenberg hit Sabia with a pass, and Sabia fired away from beyond the arc, drilling the game-winner.

“The play that we had set up of broke down a little, so when I saw Jaret drive I just got to the open spot, and when he passed it to me I just let it fly,” reflected Sabia, adding “I’ve been shooting the ball well the past few games, so I just figured it’s just like any other shot.”

On a team full of shooters, Sabia has emerged as a go-to guy in the clutch, and his transformation from a nervous freshman, at times scared to pull the trigger on the big shot, to big-time gunner has been impressive, and for Leibovitz it’s been all about confidence.

“I think that Morgan has always been a good shooter with a chance to be a great shooter, and the reason he has improved (has been) confidence,” said Leibovitz. “When you can instill confidence in someone, at any level in any sport, it’s amazing how much performance goes up. When it comes to shooting, I have all of the confidence in the world (in him.).”

Sabia displayed that confidence ten-fold, as he not only didn’t hesitate for a second to take the long three, despite time remaining on the shot clock, but was already backpedaling down the court before his shot swished through the net.

Sabia’s three, with seventeen seconds left, gave Maine a chance to tie or win the game, but Hartford was able to do something for the first time all game at the other end of the court: stop Mark Socoby. The Hawks surrounded Socoby and forced an off-balance prayer that fell far short. The Hawks were also able to prevent Sean McNally’s put-back attempt with one second left, sealing the game.

For Leibovitz, stopping Socoby was a mixed-blessing, because the Hawks’ failure to contain him early on was key to Maine getting back in the game, but it was nice for the Hawks to prove that they can clamp down around the perimeter when it counts.

“We did a good job on that last possession,” said Leibovitz. “It was nothing that I said differently on that possession than on any of the other possessions. I guess they realized the severity of it on the last possession. We seem to let the one guy on the board that we circle on the board get going at the wrong time.”

The Hawks have proven that they can play with anyone in the conference, and are only getting stronger as the season winds down, boding very well for their prospects in the conference tournament. The one question surrounding the team now is what McLendon’s place on the team is, as the Hawks’ forward, viewed as the star of the team at the beginning of the season and the one-time focal point of the offense, has seen his minutes drastically reduced following his suspension.

“Right now, he’s just a member of our team, like anyone else is, I’m trying to find out how to drive him, what buttons to push,” commented Liebovitz.

Maine was led by Socoby who finished with twenty points, and Owes who scored 14. Hartford was led by Zeglinski with 20 and Sabia with 15.

     

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