BRIDGEPORT, Conn. – Tom Moore couldn’t find any other way to describe the difference between the two halves of his team’s 82-77 win over Hartford. The Quinnipiac mentor kept coming back to “purpose” as he tried to find another word for it to no avail.
“I don’t know that we could play with less purpose in the first half than we did,” said Moore. “I didn’t like anything about the first half. I can’t come up with a better word than an offensive purpose or defensive purpose.”
In the first half, the Bobcats were basically spectators as Hartford moved the ball well to get good shots, and offensively they didn’t really attack. That all changed right away in the second half as the Bobcats scored the first five points as part of an 11-2 run, and at one point out-scored the Hawks 35-9 in the second half. Suddenly, the Bobcats were constantly attacking at both ends, taking it to the Hawks as they built up a lead. Hartford would rally late and have chances to tie it, but by then Quinnipiac was playing how they wanted to play and handled the late charge.
While the Bobcats had 19 turnovers and none of the guards had sterling assist/turnover numbers on Saturday, there’s a lot to like from that unit coming out of the game. Last season, they had a true point guard starting in Dave Johnson, although he wasn’t the same player once patella tendonitis got ahold of him. This time around, it looks like they’ll do a sort of ball handling by committee by having multiple guys who can handle the ball and lead the offense on the floor at a time.
Zaid Hearst was the key on Saturday as he went 12-12 from the free throw line en route to 17 points. Ten of them came in the last 1:26 to ice the game, and he was the only guard to have more assists (two) than turnovers (one) on the afternoon. Shaquille Shannon is better and Umar Shannon (no relation) joins them as a graduate transfer from Saint Francis (Pa.) and may be the closest thing to a point guard. Then there’s Kasim Chandler, who had his moments in his first college game. While he had four turnovers, he scored 11 points on 4-9 shooting and had three steals. He’s quick and gives them another good option.
“In the second half, he started playing his game, and you saw how good he can be,” said Hearst, who can also handle the ball some.
Moore also feels comfortable that he can go to sophomores Kendrick Ray and James Ford at any time. Neither played on Saturday but could figure into the mix this season, or at least one could be a redshirt candidate. But having them there helps in ways that won’t show up in a box score.
“Our practices are better, we have more I.Q. in the backcourt, we make better basketball plays in the backcourt this year than a year ago,” said Moore.
Added Hearst: “It gives us a more dynamic look, because everybody can control the ball, everybody can make plays for myself and Ike, it’s just that much easier.”
With all those guards, they lean on a Boston connection inside with senior Ike Azotam and junior Ousmane Drame. Azotam had a remarkably consistent stat line for the two halves considering he didn’t seem like a factor at all in the first half, as he had 20 points and 13 boards, the points split evenly with six boards in the first half and seven in the second. He also blocked Yolonzo Moore’s three-point attempt late that could have tied it, one of three on the afternoon.
Drame still hasn’t been playing the game for very long, and he’s come a long way even from his high school days. Whereas Azotam is the more skilled and athletic player, Drame is more of an enforcer inside, and they play off each other well. Now they add in freshman A.J. Sumbry, who was also a key in the second-half rally and had ten points on 4-4 shooting in his college debut.
“When he gets the ball in scoring areas, he’s got more poise than any freshman big guy we’ve had in a while,” said Moore. “He’s got a calmness in the post that’s really impressive for a freshman big guy.”
Quinnipiac joined the MAAC this year after spending its Division I existence in the Northeast Conference. The timing isn’t bad considering they have a veteran group to do it with and a lot of options on the perimeter. It’s clear that personnel won’t be a question, and this appears to be a better offensive team than it was a year ago at this time when they struggled into January. The turnovers on Saturday are a concern, but that can be rectified in time and there is reason to believe they will do that.
Moore said he thinks this team has only started to figure out who they are. There are some things that seem clear, which is that they will rebound – they bring back much of the team that was second in the country in rebounding margin, and out-rebounded Hartford 47-31 on Saturday – and that they are athletic on the perimeter. But for this team to reach its potential and contend in their new conference, they will need to play more like they did in the second half than the first on Saturday. And for that, Moore will probably come right back to the only word he could think of on Saturday: purpose.