SMITHFIELD, R.I. – It hasn’t taken Danny Hurley long to bring Wagner back into prominence. In just his second season, he has the Seahawks entering the final game before the Northeast Conference Tournament with a 24-4 record overall and a 15-2 record in conference play. They battled back from an early struggle to knock off Bryant by a score of 86-73 on Thursday night, and did so with some help from a key area of strength for this team.
Wagner has just two seniors in the rotation and starts three sophomores, so this isn’t the most experienced team around. Kenneth Ortiz, the primary point guard, is one of those sophomores. They can go about ten deep, including freshmen Mario Moody and Marcus Burton, so this is a team that clearly has a high ceiling. On Thursday night, the depth was a big reason they won, as the starters struggled for some of the first half as Bryant built up an 11-point lead at one point.
“The one thing about our depth, when you’re playing ten guys, it gives you chance that if one of your leading scorers isn’t playing well, somebody can pick him up,” said Hurley. “We don’t have anyone that’s averaging 20 points a game, but we’ve got a lot of guys that can hurt you.”
Add in that all ten average double digit minutes and no one plays more than 31 per game, and this is a team that constantly has fresh bodies. It showed on the defensive end, which is where the comeback started. In the second half, they slowed Bryant to 40 percent shooting to help them keep a good distance, and it continued what they started in the latter part of the first half as they cut into the lead.
“Our defense is what got us here, and I believe it’s what’s going to make us win the game or lose the game,” said junior Jonathon Williams, who led the way with 27 points on 9-13 shooting, grabbed 12 rebounds and handed out six assists in a fine all-around effort.
Hurley said he felt good about the team’s depth once freshmen like Burton and Moody started to develop. Both have good futures, but right now their role is to help the upperclassmen, and with this being just the second season for this staff, the upperclassmen are a group that they have managed well.
When a new coaching staff comes in, balancing the players they inherit and the ones they recruit can be a delicate act. Hurley, of course, comes from a great lineage, being the son of legendary St. Anthony’s coach Bob Hurley, so it’s not a surprise that he and his staff had an idea for this. They not only embraced the upperclassmen in their plan, but they made it a point to put them into leadership roles. On this team, with the aforementioned youth, that’s not a minor matter.
“That’s allowed us to be 24-4,” said Hurley. “If we had discarded our older players and made it about the kids that we recruited, we would still be in a rebuilding stage.”
The players bought in to what the staff was teaching before long. They knew about Hurley’s track record before he took the job, so he had instant credibility. Hurley knew he had a group that wanted to win and work hard to get there, and proved he can do it with high-level players at St. Benedict’s before he came to Wagner. That has been reinforced over time, as they showed a marked improvement last season before they started rolling off the wins this season.
“You look at his stats over the years at St. Benedict’s, they’re great, he’s a great coach,” said Williams. “You’ve got to buy into what he says. He shows it over and over again: if we listen to him, it works.”
The Seahawks’ 24 wins are a school record, and with a win on Saturday at Central Connecticut they will tie the Northeast Conference record for regular season wins that was set by Robert Morris in 2007-08. They are 12-2 on the road, with the 12 road wins being a national-best. They got some confidence early on with some non-conference wins, starting 5-1, and it carried over from there. They enter the regular season finale having won nine straight games.
As good as all of that is, they would like to get another crack at the one team in the Northeast Conference they have not been able to top, defending champion LIU. The Blackbirds beat them twice, and if they get to play them once more, it will be in the NEC title game. Hurley knows that getting there will be a challenge given that the conference is up this season, but the staff believes in their players as they have all along.
“LIU is a really good team,” said Hurley. “If we get another chance, that would mean that we would have advanced very far. It would be exciting to be in that position.”