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Hartford Rebounds For Big Win

March 3, 2008 Columns No Comments

The Heart of a Champion

by Sam Perkins

HARTFORD, Conn. – It was fitting that Nelly’s new track Heart of a Champion was blaring over the sound system as Warren McClendon threw down what has become a ritual pre-game dunk-a-thon in warm-ups, as no song better represented the Hawks, who stood triumphant over the conference champion UMBC Retrievers after forty minutes of war, hanging on for a 58-57 victory.

This was a true “character” game, a testament to the sheer will to win that second-year head coach Dan Leibovitz has instilled in his team from the day he set foot on campus. Hartford was coming off of the worst loss of their season, a 97-68 drubbing at Boston University on Thursday night. It was all on the line today for the Hawks, as a win would clinch the number two seed heading into the conference tournament, while a loss could drop them as far down as fifth.

Joe Zeglinski led the Hawks in scoring with 13 points, while Michael Turner did everything and then some on the floor, but it was McClendon’s emergence from the team’s doghouse that was the deciding factor, as he scored 11 while grabbing eight rebounds and blocking four shots.

It took some serious steering from the local media during his post game press conference, but Leibovitz called the victory over UMBC the biggest win in his short career as a head coach. When asked, he responded simply, “Yeah, I would say so.” While this would seem to be a brush-off statement for many of the conference’s outspoken coaches, for Leibovitz, who is the epitome of even-keeled and soft-spoken, this was a big statement.

Many teams who suffered the kind of beating that Hartford did in their previous game would simply fold in this situation, and Hartford certainly had the look of a beaten and dejected team as they boarded their bus home from Boston Thursday night. However, the Hawks bounced back after some therapy sessions with their coach and an inspired practice Friday.

“The last game, I can’t really explain it, but I just didn’t feel like we were ever really into it. The reasons really aren’t important, but we just didn’t play a good game and BU played excellent,” said Leibovitz. “We came back Friday, and I met with each player individually to try to see where they were coming from, if there was anything that was worth while, and I think it helped to open up some lines of communication. We had a great practice and put it all out there, and I said today after the game, that we won the game Friday in practice, and I really mean it.”

“We knew it was a big game, for second place, I knew that we were going to be ready to play. There was no way that this team was not going to show up,” added sophomore star Zeglinski.

Heart was never more important than Sunday, as Hartford dug in before a boisterous crowd on senior day and held off not only the league’s most talented team, but a team that has made a name for itself by pulling out tight game after tight game on pure will, guts, and determination. The Hawks’ heart has never been lost on the opposing coach, as after sharing an embrace with Leibovitz, UMBC’s Randy Monroe complimented the young Hawks, saying, “The University of Hartford did a tremendous job, and the young men (for Hartford) just did a tremendous job,” before adding, “they (Hartford) have some nice players who really play hard and they play passionate, they are really passionate about the game of basketball.”

But Hartford would need more than heart to take down the Retrievers, as the Hawks left everything they had on the Retrievers’ home floor earlier in the season, only to see victory evaporate from their hands thanks to a Brian Hodges three at the buzzer.

“First time we played it was a knock-down, drag-out fight till the bitter end, it was a much more high-scoring game 86-85, but it was a battle to the end,” remarked Monroe.

Hartford knew coming in to the game that their chances of winning another shootout with the Retrievers would be slim to none, and Leibovitz’s squad would need to play one heck of a game defensively to give themselves any kind of a chance to win. What they put out was the defensive performance of the season, as the Hawks, who are last in scoring defense, held the league’s best offensive team to a season-low 33 percent from the floor. The Hawks made the biggest impact on defense around the three-point arc, holding UMBC’s incredibly dangerous foursome of Ray Barbosa, Brian Hodges, Jay Greene, and Matt Spadafora to a combined 4-18 from behind the arc and 7-30 from the floor.

No Hawk has been bigger on defense this year than Michael Turner, who is making a strong run at defensive player of the year. Sunday was no different as Turner found himself covering Barbosa, who went off for 31 points in his last game out, for much of the night. Turner was a blur of energy on defense, harassing Barbosa and the rest of the Retriever shooters around the perimeter, while somehow managing to rip down ten defensive rebounds.

“As far as I’m concerned he’s as good a guy as I have ever had on defense, he plays every position, he knows everyone’s job, and he’s going to be a great coach one day when he’s done playing,” marveled Leibovitz after the game.

As good as Turner has been on defense, his biggest contribution may have come in the strategic capacity, as the junior forward, whose teammates and coaches alike refer to as a coach on the court, took it upon himself to switch up the Hawks’ defensive alignment. Despite the Retrievers’ failure to connect from downtown, Greene, who has no peers in the conference with regard to seeing the court and finding the open man, began to run wild in the first half. The Hawks have run a 2-3 zone all season long, and Greene blew threw it like a tornado, driving to the hoop before hitting Proctor and Johnson with some of the prettiest no-look dishes you’ll ever see at the collegiate level.

That’s when Turner flipped the script, so to speak.

“We started off in our three-two, and that has been effective sometimes and not so effective sometimes, and then we switched over to what we call our ball zone,” said Leibovitz. “Mike was actually the one who came over to the sideline and said ‘let’s go ball-zone’ and he’s the only one I listen to when it comes to defense, because he’s the only one whose been playing real good defense.”

The new defense slowed down Greene greatly, as the Retrievers’ point guard racked up eight assists in the first half but only one in after intermission. “When we went to that defense we did a much better job keeping Jay Greene in front of us, in the first part of the game he was using ball screens and getting right to the rim and kicking out to great shooters,” added Leibovitz.

As good as the Hawks’ defense was around the perimeter, in the early going Proctor and Johnson were unstoppable. Proctor bulled his way around the hoop for put-backs and buried what has become an unstoppable fade-away, and Johnson was flying over and around the Hawks while also displaying a nifty jumper of his own. However, things got a whole lot tougher for the Retrievers with 15:23 remaining in the first half when McClendon checked in to the game.

McClendon, who was billed as a first-team All-Conference type of a player, struggled greatly with staying out of foul trouble, and even more greatly with playing within Leibovitz’s system. McClendon tantalized fans with flashes of brilliance, including a 29-point, 10-rebound explosion in the Hawks’ first meeting with UMBC. However, after Hartford returned from Baltimore, McClendon saw his playing time disappear, with his minutes and touches dropping dramatically, including three of the dreaded DNP-CD (did not play, coaches decision) in the Hawks’ last eight games. Nowhere was this more telling that in the Hawks’ last outing, against a Boston University squad with one of the weakest frontcourts in the conference. If ever there was a time to play McClendon, it would appear to have been versus the Terriers. But McClendon never left the bench, even when Leibovitz threw in his walk-ons for extended playing time in the blowout.

But in the team’s biggest game of the season against the league’s best frontcourt, Leibovitz threw McClendon in, and the Hawks’ mountain in the middle responded, scoring nine first-half points on an array of up and under moves. “He played well against us the first time, Warren’s been a thorn in our side. He’s a Hawk, and he’s a Hawk that has skills, he can do some real damage around the basket, and he’s got a nice touch for a big guy, so when he turns and faces the basket, he knows how to finish, he’s played terrific against us,” said Monroe, before dead-panning, “I wish he could play for our team.”

McClendon’s presence on offense forced the Retrievers to adjust their defense and focus on stopping him on the low blocks, which then opened up perimeter shots for Turner, Zeglinski, and Morgan Sabia. “Warren did a great job down low of producing on offense and playing solid defense,” said Zeglinski.

As big as McClendon was offensively, he was even bigger on the defensive end, which has been his biggest on-the-court failing this season. Despite blocking a lot of shots, McClendon has developed a reputation as a defensive liability, as he often ignores the Hawks’ zone scheme and instead concentrates only on going for the big block, thus resulting in countless easy buckets for Hartford’s opponents.

However, on Sunday McClendon was tremendous, as he followed Leibovitz’s game plan to a T, holding his spot while contesting every Retriever shot around the bucket, coming up with four rejections while altering a dozen or so shots. McClendon made Proctor work for every bucket, even somehow managing to do the near impossible by blocking one of Proctor’s fade-away jumpers. While McClendon only scored one bucket in the second half, it came in spectacular fashion, as he threw down a monster two-handed slam in traffic to give Hartford a momentum boost when they needed it most.

McClendon’s contributions can not be overstated. With the Retriever’s front line, and the ease that they scored when McClendon was not on the court, Hartford would not have won without him, plain and simple.

“I thought Warren was a big factor in the game, without question,” said Leibovitz. “Morgan and Anthony are fighting with their lives, but physically they’re just not ready to stop Proctor, especially physically. Warren changed the game. He really is trying to fit into his role and what I’m asking him to do, and he did today, so he was an important part of this game.”

Even with the Hawks playing the perfect game defensively, UMBC still found themselves in position to win the game in the final seconds, largely in part because of Johnson’s outing. Johnson, whom has been coming off of the bench for most of the conference season, simply could not be denied, hitting big bucket after big bucket from all over the court.

“Since he’s been coming off of the bench he’s been one of our top scorers, he’s just really been playing good basketball, and he’s been improving as we continue to move along in the season. I’m really proud of what he did today, he actually carried us out their all day,” said Monroe.

After thirty-eight and a half minutes of all-out play, the final minute and a half took on a life of its own, as with a 1:20 left Barbosa buried a twenty-six foot three, cutting Hartford’s lead to one, 56-55. It appeared that UMBC was once again going to find a way to pull out a last second victory. After a rare McClendon miss, Barbosa again let fly from well beyond NBA range, a questionable shot for most players in the league considering the large amount of time left on the shot clock, but not for Barbosa, who has the green light from anywhere behind the arc.

Barbosa’s shot clanked off the rim and McClendon came down with the rebound and UMBC was forced to foul with thirty-six seconds left. With the Retrievers still two fouls away from being over the limit, Spadafora picked up a foul before Hartford could inbound the ball, and that’s when things went crazy.

Hartford could not get the ball inbounds following Spadafora’s foul and was forced to burn a timeout and draw up an inbounds play. However, the Hawks still could not get the ball in on their second try, and Turner (the inbounder) was called for a five-second violation, giving UMBC the ball back and another chance to win the game.

“That was coach Gal’s fault,” joked Leibovitz, referring to associate head coach John Gallagher, “I can blame him, I have a couple of inbounds plays, and he always says ‘if you want to get it in I got one,’ and it didn’t work. But he’s been great all season so I can’t blame him.”

Barbosa, who has been the Retrievers’ best scorer down the stretch, once again found himself in a position to put the Retrievers in the lead, as he drove baseline with eighteen seconds left. The Hawks collapsed on him, appearing to free up Proctor for a kick-out, however Barbosa tried to make an up and under basket in traffic and missed, giving the ball back to Hartford.

Proctor quickly fouled Zeglinski, and Zeglinski made both of his free throws, putting Hartford up 58-55 with sixteen seconds left. On the other end of the floor Hodges missed a three, appearing to end any hope for UMBC. However, in almost an identical fashion to his game-winning heroics versus Albany, Proctor came out of no where to grab his 13th rebound and found the hoop to cut the Hawks’ lead back to one with two seconds left.

Following Proctor’s bucket, and in an attempt to avoid another five second call, Turner tried to inbound the ball immediately, but he and Jaret Von Rosenberg missed each other, with Turner’s pass sailing behind Von Rosenberg, who fell down. That gave the ball back to UMBC under their own basket with two seconds left on the clock. Barbosa got a look at a three, but his shot fell short, then Johnson grabbed the rebound with 1.3 seconds left. He appeared to be gang-tackled by two defenders, but no whistle was blown, and the Hawks celebrated their highest ever finish in the conference standings at the Division I level.

Well, almost all of the Hawks celebrated, as even in the post game press conference Turner was still visibly shaken, feeling as if he had almost cost his team the game.

“Myself, I wasn’t too enthused, because I almost gave it away, but it’s a W and we’ll take it,” said Turner.

Hartford now finds itself in uncharted waters, as the Hawks have as good a chance as ever to finally make the NCAA tournament. For Turner, the team’s unquestioned leader, the most important thing for the Hawks is not dwelling on the victory, nor getting to far ahead of themselves.

“We know it’s where we want to be right now, in this position, but we have the tournament next week, and that’s our real goal to win the tournament. But we can’t look past anyone, and right now the only game left for us in New Hampshire, and after that then we can talk about the next game.”


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