(West Hartford, CT) – With 4:25 remaining in the game, and the Hartford Hawks clinging to a 67-62 lead over Central Connecticut State, Blue Devils sophomore Kyle Vinales had the ball in his hands at the top of the key, with only Hartford sophomore Corban Wroe standing between him and another bucket. One of the most explosive scorers in the nation, Vinales ranked third among the national scoring leaders at 25.7 points per game, and was in the midst of a scoring deluge, having poured in 24 or more points in four straight games. Averaging just 16 minutes and a whopping two point per game average, Wroe would seem to be at the losing end of a decided mismatch.
But while Vinales got the better of his defenders for most of the night, pouring in a game and season-high 32 points, in the games biggest moment, it was Wroe who made the biggest play. The 6’2″ Australian-import and one-time Rugby star poked the ball loose into the back court. At an all out sprint, Wroe chased Vinales down from behind. When the star shooting guard slowed to corral the ball, Wroe launched himself like a missile head-first, flying past Vinales, diving on the ball and calling a timeout before he could be tied out.
It was the game in microcosm.
“Today, when clutch plays needed to be made – Corban Wroe’s play – we made the toughness plays, so I can circle that down as why we had the ‘W’ today,” said head coach John Gallagher
Nearly a year ago to the day, the Hawks were annihilated, 92-58, by the Blue Devils, getting out-played, out-hustled, out-toughed, and thoroughly embarrassed in a game which was no where near as close as its lopsided final score. On Saturday afternoon, the Hawks got a measure of revenge and redemption, making all the gut check plays down the stretch to out-fight and out-work the Blue Devils for an 80-77 win.
“We have to realize that those [hustle] plays – that’s the foundation of who we are; those toughness plays,” said Gallagher.
“[Coach Gallagher] had them motivated and they played with more emotion than we did,” said Central Connecticut State head coach Howie Dickenman. “We were well prepared for this… But emotionally we weren’t there; we weren’t mentally tough.”
Sophomore Forward Mark Nwakamma exploded for a career-high 24 points on 10-of-17 shooting, while pulling down seven rebounds and dishing out five assists, adding a block and a steal. Sophomore guard Yolonzo Moore II scored 16 points on 5-of-7 shooting, including 3-of-4 from deep. Freshman point guard Evan Cooper scored 10 points in 22 minutes off the bench. But it was Wroe who made the biggest and toughest plays in the deciding moments.
Hartford lost the battle of the boards 40-31, as Central Connecticut turned 14 offensive rebounds into 11 points (the Hawks five offensive boards resulted in six points). The Blue Devils turned 15 Hawks turnovers into 20 points (compared to 11 points off turnovers for the Hawks), and scored 18 points on fast breaks to Hartford’s two.
But the Hawks controlled the tempo of the game, and executed their offense to perfection, moving the basketball methodically, pounding the rock into the paint to Nwakamma, collapsing the defense and resulting in either hard-fought buckets, or open three’s on the perimeter.
Hartford shot 54.7 percent from the floor (29-of-53) and an even 50 percent from downtown (8-of-16), while dishing out 17 assists. CCSU shot 42.6 percent from the floor and 33.3 percent from deep and dished out only six assists. Twelve Hawks saw action and nine scored baskets.
“We’re playing at a pace now,” said Gallagher. “Even earlier this year, against Quinnipiac, I didn’t think we were really playing at a pace, now we’re controlling it.”
Up 38-37 at the half, Central Connecticut began to pull away, pushing their lead to 57-51 with 12:13 remaining. Hartford responded with a 19-5 run over the next eight minutes. Six different Hawks scored during the surge, which put Hartford up, 70-62, with 4:16 remaining.
Central Connecticut twice cut the lead all the way down to two, but the Hawks dug in and made the plays to survive.
“Today we were tougher and made some plays down the stretch,” said Nwakamma.
The 6’6” forward continued his meteoric sophomore season, scoring the Hawks first 10 points in the first 6:28 of playing time before drawing double-teams for the rest of the night. Nwakamma outscored the Blue Devils starting front court 24-2 and showed the complete package Saturday – scoring on mid-range jumpers, spin moves and up-fakes in the post, drives to the bucket from behind the arc, and a dagger from downtown.
“[Nwakamma] can really, really play,” Dickenman raved following the game, “You can build a team around him.”
Wroe, a tough-as-nails defensive stopper, put the Hawks on top for good, beating the Blue Devils down the floor for an acrobatic fast-break lay-up, to take a 62-60 lead with 6:52 left.
A top of the key three by Nwakamma with 4:42 pushed the lead to 67-62, fully swinging the momentum behind the Hawks.
Twenty seconds later, Wroe made his Rickey Henderson-esque theft of Vinales, diving on the ball and calling timeout in front of the Hawks bench. The always animated Gallagher emphatically pumped both fists and stomped on the ground, excitedly yelling encouragement at the sophomore.
Out of the timeout, freshman forward Taylor Dyson drilled a contested left-wing three to push the lead to eight.
Gallagher initially planned on red-shirting Dyson, another Australian product, and did not play him in the first three games of the season. But the talented 6’4” wing forced himself into the rotation ahead of schedule. In his first action of the season, against La Salle, Dyson scored 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting in just eight minutes of action. Saturday, he drilled two three’s and saw a tough leaner in the lane rim-out.
“He’s gotta’ play. I’ve just gotta’ put him out there, he’s gotta grow. He’s going to get more and more minutes as the season goes on,” said Gallagher of Dyson. “He’s a gifted scorer. I wanted to red-shirt him, but he’s too talented, he’s going to end up playing 20 minutes a game.”
Wroe’s raw stat-line – five points in 20 minutes on 2-of-4 shooting, to go along with two steals – wouldn’t even merit a second thought when glancing over the box score, but his impact was huge. In addition to his bucket, and all-heart-and-hustle steal, he drew two huge charges down the stretch and always seemed to be diving into the fray.
“You have to have guys like Corban Wroe on your team — have to. Every great team has those guys that just want to do the dirty work,” said Gallagher. “It’s a five point game when he made the play, we draw a play up out of bounds, and Taylor Dyson hits a three. It’s a huge play, it’s a momentum swinging play; you win or lose games on those plays. The only guy I addressed in that locker room was Corban Wroe, because he made the toughness plays.”
Cooper sealed the win with another all-effort play. With Moore at the line shooting the second half of a 1-and-1, and the Hawks leading 76-72 with 21 seconds remaining, Gallagher dropped three players back on defense, leaving the 5’11” Cooper as the only Hawk on the blocks. When Moore’s free-throw rattled out, Cooper blew past three larger Blue Devils to rip down the rebound while being fouled.
Cooper sank both free-throws and the Hawks survived a final scoring spurt by Central Connecticut’s back court.