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Friday, February 16, 2007

Friday Steve Edelson column


WEST LONG BRANCH — When Central Connecticut State won their Northeast Conference opener against St. Francis (N.Y.) way back on Dec. 7, coach Howie Dickenman was downright giddy. In his mind, that win was likely to help them in a tie-breaker for the eighth and final spot in the conference tournament.
Ten weeks later, it's Monmouth University's postseason dreams that are on life support following g Thursday night's 70-65 loss, with the preseason favorites falling to eighth in the standings as the Blue Devils wrapped up the regular season title at their expense. How could things have gone so horribly wrong at Boylan Gymnasium for a team expected to make it back-to-back trips to March Madness?

Coach Dave Calloway has a pretty good idea what the answer is, and spent halftime chiding his players about it before they returned to the court with just 90 seconds to spare."I questioned what we had a problem with for a long time ... mental toughness," he said. "I questioned it really, really hard at halftime."

On this particular evening, the absence of arguably the most important ingredient manifested itself in many ways.

The Hawks were simply unable to produce a run when they needed one early in the second half, and still trailing by nine even though the visitors managed just one basket in the opening 11:24.

Later, it was Javier Mojica, the Blue Devils' senior walk-on guard, nailing a running jump-hook with just under a minute and the shot clock running down to play to stymie a furious rally.

Mental toughness.

The Hawks hit just 4 of 13 free throws in the first half, falling behind by 14 points. They missed 11 for the game to six for the Blue Devils, and lost by five.

Mental toughness.

They came out and Dejan Delic connected on a 3-pointer nine seconds into the game, but they gave up an easy 3-point shot at the other end on the next trip downcourt.

Mental toughness.

The question is whether this group is capable of suddenly gaining that psychological edge that players in this program possessed during their run of six straight winning seasons, a streak that is now in serious jeopardy.

This week alone the Hawks lost a pair of crucial home games. Three of their final four games are on the road, where they're just 2-10 this season.

Mental toughness.

"(Central Connecticut) has got some good players, but are they that much more talented than FDU or Robert Morris or Quinnipiac or Monmouth?" Calloway wondered. "No, but they're mentally tougher and have more guys who are."That's the difference. That team is 14-1 because they're mentally tough. You have to be very, very mentally tough to be 14-1 in any league."

After going to the NCAA tournament last year, seniors like Marques Alston could possibly be playing their final home game Feb. 23, which was unthinkable three months ago for a team that appeared poised for a special season.

The Hawks made a nice run in the final five minutes to put a scare into the Blue Devils, but they fell behind early in the first half and never made an effective run when the game was hanging in the balance.

Freshman Jhamar Youngblood scored all 15 of his points in the final 5:34.

"We should have come out with a sense of urgency," said Alston, who finished with 11 points.

For his part, Calloway's doing what he can to push the right buttons. In addition to his chidings at the intermission, he yanked Youngblood just 75 seconds into the game after the youngster had a defensive lapse.

"At the end of the game, I told them I was proud of them that they didn't quit, but we still didn't show mental toughness," Calloway added.

The Hawks didn't have to play a great game to win this one. But they had to exhibit a little moxie.

Maybe it's the young backcourt, one season after Calloway had a pair of seniors running the show. Who knows.

It's really up to the players now. At this point they clearly don't have the mental edge to win games like this, and finding it in the next few days seems as unlikely as their current predicament.

Stephen Edelson is an Asbury Park Press staff writer


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