Maine head coach Bob Walsh: “It’s my fault”

In head coach Bob Walsh’s plans to rebuild Maine basketball from the dumpster fire it had been for close to the past decade, being good isn’t going to be good enough. So to say Walsh is not a happy man with the state of Black Bears basketball, which has now lost 12 straight games, falling to 1-17, is a big understatement.

But to Walsh, the big problem isn’t his team’s record, which sits at 1-17, it’s the pattern of how Maine has lost most of its games: huge second half defensive collapses, most recently by giving up 29 points in the final 9:45 of a 65-55 loss to NJIT at home on Monday night, including a 26-10 Highlanders run to close out the game.

“Our defense. We gave up 29 points in less than 10 minutes,” said Walsh bluntly of his thoughts following the loss. “Do the math: that’s like 120 points in a game. You just can’t win if you are going to give up points at that rate. They started driving the ball to the rim on us and we weren’t tough enough. They started penetrating and kicking and we were giving up middle drives and we were forced to help and they kicked it out and made in-rhythm threes.”

While it might not be something that Walsh – a no-excuses, no-nonsense, adapt-and-get-the-job-done coach with a reputation as a great motivator – may want to hear, most of the outside world expected the Black Bears to struggle just as they have during his first season. Walsh inherited a team that had, frankly, not played a lick of defense for the better part of the previous 10 seasons, and took over a skeleton crew roster decimated by four straight seasons of infighting that saw the top talent transfer out every year.

But after the latest loss, Walsh was in no mood for excuses, pointing the finger squarely at himself for the team’s current state.

“What we are doing defensively isn’t close to good enough and that’s got to change. It starts with me and it’s my fault and it’s got to change,” he said. “Mentally we’ve all got to get tougher. One of the things we’ve all got to work on is handling stuff that’s hard.”

Walsh tinkered with his lineup throughout the game, playing a long stretch with small forward Garet Beal playing center surrounded by four other guards on the floor.

“We found a toughness in that middle 20 [minutes] it seemed like. I didn’t think we were very tough or very invested defensively early, I thought they missed some shots,” he said. “Five guards on the floor. Garet was rebounding really well. Zarko had three defensive rebounds in the first half, I think Shaun had three defensive rebounds. As long as we can rebound out of it I think it makes us harder to guard on offense.

The Black Bears entered the game without the services of forward Marko Pirovic, who looks like he will be lost for the season after re-aggrivating a foot injury.
But when asked if injuries have taken a toll on the team, Walsh once again refused to pass the buck for the team’s current state.

“Until we get down to four [players], we’ve got enough guys to play with,” he said.

For Walsh and Maine’s complete post-game press conference, view above.

Peter Hooley, his mother and a moment so much bigger than the game

Albany head coach Will Brown won the 200th game of his career Wednesday night and his Great Danes moved to 4-0 in conference play with a resounding 73-58 victory over Binghamton in a game nowhere near as close as the final score.

On any other night, Brown’s milestone and the Great Danes undefeated start to conference play would have been the stories of the game.

But Wednesday was not any other night.

The story Wednesday night was the strength of Susan Hooley and her son Peter, and the selfless acts of the Great Danes and thousands of their fans.

The intertwined stories of Susan and Peter Hooley, Albany’s star shooting guard, has been well told by now. Shortly before the son was to set sail for America from his native Australia as an incoming freshman in the summer of 2011 his mother was diagnosed with what is called bowel cancer in Australia – colon cancer in the states.

The son was reluctant to go, but his mother insisted he not pass on his once in a lifetime opportunity to play college basketball. Sue Hooley was first diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2011, about five months before Peter was scheduled to first come to Albany. One of the first things Peter said was that he didn’t want to go to college anymore and he needed to stay home to support his mom, but his mom quickly said no to that and said it would hurt her more if he stayed and kept Pete from living his dream.

Over the next four seasons the son overcame injuries to flourish into a star, hitting big shot after big shot and leading the Great Danes to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances over the past two seasons, while half a world away his mother fought with everything she had against the terrible disease.

After seeing his mother fight off the disease, only to have it come roaring back, Peter Hooley had had enough and decided he needed to do more than simply inspire his family with his play on the court. So he decided to promote a charitable event back in his home country, know as the People’s Choice Undies Run for Bowel Cancer. But he wouldn’t be alone in the fight, as Brown and his wife Jamie dove in head first in support, organizing a fundraiser for the game with the goal of selling 500 navy blue wristbands with “Colon Cancer Awareness” and 25 homemade bracelets made by a friend of Jamie’s.

“I had people call me and leave messages ‘Can’t make the game can you save me a wristband’. I text them back, ‘heck no, I’m not saving you a wristband.’ We’re selling these babies,” Brown said. Adding to that comment, Jamie said that every single wristband was sold within 3 minutes into the game, and the bracelets not long after that.

Adding on to all the wristband sales, which went for $3 for 1 or 2 for $5, and the bracelets, which went for $25, plenty of checks were given to Coach Brown, as he said about 15 people stopped by his office during the game to donate.

The total: $6,000, a sum that blew Peter Hooley away.

But then Mark Benson walked into the press conference room, whispered to Jamie Brown, who then motioned for her husband to come down and tell him what she was just told and then Coach Brown told all in attendance of the press conference some unbelievable news: An anonymous family went to Benson towards the end of the game and said they wanted to match the donation, making the final total an astonishing $12,000.

At that point Hooley, a pillar of strength throughout his career, finally broke down, shaking as he wept openly.

“I wish I knew who it was,” he said, shedding tears struggling to find the words. “I’m speechless.”

“This is the first time he’s ever been speechless,” Coach Brown chimed in.

“I’m about to talk to mum. I’m sure she’d want to know exactly who it was. That’s unbelievable. Thank you,” Hooley finished.

“It goes beyond wins and losses. It really does,” Brown said.

And yet the fundraising still wasn’t done.

By the time the donation was sent to the “Hooley’s Dooleys” team, running in the Undies Run on behalf of Susan, the $12,000 at the time of the press conference had grown to $14,500.

“We are so humbled and inspired by the support that this community has shown for Peter, his Mum and his cause,” Jamie Brown said on Sunday morning. “I cannot think of a more deserving young man and his wonderful family. We are so incredibly grateful.”

Hooley took to Facebook to express his gratitude.

“Life holds so many simple blessings, each day bringing its own individual wonder… and this is proof,” he wrote. “What started as a small idea to just do my bit from the other side of the world, has turned into something I can’t even fathom. The donations, the support and the love shows that the world truly can be a beautiful place. So from the bottom of my heart… thank you.”

Sometimes the final score tells the story. Sometimes, it doesn’t even come close.

If you would like to donate to the Hooley Dooleys team, with all benefits from each times donation page going to the Cancer Council of South Australia, you can do so here.

Short film: Coming home — the basketball Odyssey of Freddy Petkus

Coming Home: The Basketball Odyssey of Freddy Petkus from Samuel Perkins on Vimeo.

The saying goes that you can’t go home again – that once you leave the scenes of your adolescence, you will forever be a stranger upon your return. But in a sleepy New Hampshire town, one man has done just that.

Fourteen years ago, Freddy Petkus was a post graduate student and prep basketball standout at the New Hampton School, with dreams and legitimate prospects of playing professional basketball. Now, more than a decade after first setting foot on campus as a student, he’s a math teacher and basketball coach at the very school he attended.

“When I first came, I pretty much hated this place,” he says, I was like, ‘I wanna leave, I wanna leave,’ and when I was graduating I was crying, “coach, can I do another year?’” he says.

But unlike so many who return years later to the backdrop of their youth, for Petkus, there are no ghosts of the past, no shattered dreams or painful reminders of innocence lost.

There is only a very happy homecoming.

“Right now I feel like I can pay it forward to some kids and tell the story of how I made it,” says Petkus, a member of New Hampton’s postgraduate Class of 2001 and now a math teacher and the head girls’ basketball coach at the school, who stands 6-foot-5 with light brown hair, deep blue eyes and unmistakably Lithuanian features. “This place made me who I am.”

Lietuva

Petkus’ Odyssey began 33 years ago in Plungė, Lithuania, a city of more than 23,000 that sits in the northeast of the tiny Baltic country. During medieval times, Lithuania had been a great European power, but by the late 1700s it had been partitioned by Russia, Prussia and the Austrian empire.

Despite centuries of occupation and subjugation, Lithuanian culture, language – a Baltic dialect completely different from the surrounding Germanic and Slavic languages – and dreams of independence survived.

Lithuania finally achieved independence following World War I, but it was short lived. In 1939 the Soviet Union invaded, occupying and annexing the country in 1940. In 1941 Nazi Germany invaded, driving out the Russians. Over the next four years, the Nazi’s would exterminate more than 90-percent of Lithuania’s once vibrant Jewish population, and level most of the countryside in the process. Then came the Russians again, re-conquering Lithuania again in 1944, beginning massive deportations of Lithuanians to Siberia.

Nearly 800,000 Lithuanians perished during World War II, a staggering number considering that today the countries population sits below 3 million.

The country would remain under Soviet Domination for the better part of the next five decades, but dreams of freedom would never die. Basketball — not simply the national sport, but an all-encompassing obsession among Lithuanians — would sustain them and give the country hope during the occupation.

“Lithuania is big on basketball – it’s like second religion,” says Petkus.

Lithuania won the European Championship in 1937 and again in 1939, ironically just before the country was invaded and, in the eyes of the world, ceased to exist for 50 years.

Even without their own national team, Lithuanians continued to make a huge impact on the national stage, making up the backbone of the Soviet Union’s National Team for five decades. The Soviet team that famously dismantled Team USA in the 1988 Olympics en route to a gold medal started four Lithuanians, among them future basketball Hall of Fame selections Arvydas Sabonis and Šarūnas Marčiulionis.

As the Soviet Union’s grip began to weaken across the region in 1990, Lithuania declared independence on March 11, 1990, becoming the first Soviet republic to do so. The USSR responded by to suppress the uprising, first through economic sanctions and then brute force, sending in troops who attacked Lithuanian protestors on Jan. 13, 1991.

“When I turned 10, that’s when Lithuania took matters into their own hands. [People] went out and stood in front of tanks and pretty much took their independence back,” says Petkus. “The biggest memory that I have is my dad getting ready with his friends to leave and telling my older brother, who is six years older than me, telling him ‘you are the head of the household now.’ It was kind of surreal to see your dad leave and not know whether he was coming back or not.”

Petkus’ father survived, but 14 civilians were killed and more than 600 wounded. But the march towards freedom had begun and could not be stopped, and Lithuania gained independence later that year.

“People were standing in front of tanks. A couple guys got run over with tanks. People got killed and shot up. Once we got independence it was a great feeling to know that we are our own country now,” he says.

Falling in love with the national obsession

Petkus played for the University of Maine from 2001 through 2006. Courtesy photo / Maine Athletics
Petkus played for the University of Maine from 2001 through 2006. Courtesy photo / Maine Athletics

Despite growing up in a basketball crazed country – arguably the best basketball playing country in the world, per capita, when considering it’s three Olympic Bronze medals, and 10 total medals in international competition, juxtaposed against its population which is only a little larger than that of the state of Rhode Island – Petkus didn’t start playing the sport until age 17.

“I played on the streets, but until my junior year in high school I did not pick it up as an organized sport.”

But once he got serious, he was hooked.

“From then on it’s what I wanted to do,” he says. “From then on every summer I was working out twice a day, doing drills.”

After graduating high school in 1998, Petkus spent a season playing in Lithuania’s professional league, considered one of the top leagues in all of Europe. With dreams of playing basketball at an American college, Petkus never signed a pro contract or earned a paycheck, retaining his amateur status.

The Odyssey begins

Petkus arrived on campus at New Hampton Prep, a small prep school of red brick and white clapboard sided colonial houses, hidden in the New Hampshire mountains in the summer of 2000. He was miserable almost immediately.

“It was pretty tough to get adjusted, coming to the United States from Europe at 19. My grades were fine, athletically I was OK. But it was just like, ‘what am I doing here? Why am I here?’ I could go home, be with my family, talk Lithuanian, not have American’s making fun of me.”

Petkus suited up alongside the likes of Rashad McCants and Wes Miller, and more than held his own in one of the best prep leagues in the country, but fell into a deep depression off the court.

“I went to Nebraska with my roommate and I saw how nice it was to be with family, and I was like ‘I’m done.’”

It was a deep connection with his then head coach Jamie Arsenault, now New Hampton’s athletic director, that kept Petkus at the school.

“When I was graduating I did not want to leave,” he says.

Moving even farther north

Freddy Petkus (far right) loved every second he was at Maine.
Freddy Petkus (far right) loved every second he was at Maine.

Petkus was being recruited by a host of higher-level schools early in his prep season, but after bouts of depression and subsequent sporadic play, many teams backed off. The University of Maine did not and after a recruiting visit, Petkus was sold.

“The reason I kind of chose Maine was it gave me the same kind of vibe as New Hampton except on a larger scale. It gave me a family vibe. I’m glad I chose Maine – yeah, it’s cold, but beautiful state, great people, great education,” he says.

Petkus would spend five years in Orono, but would not play a single healthy season. A high-flying athlete in Lithuania who as a 16-year-old cleared 6’5” in the high jump and went head-to-head with Lithuanian legend Rimantas_Kaukėnas in a slam dunk contest, degenerative conditions in both knees and two completely disintegrated discs in his back would rob him of his quickness and explosiveness.

“Never was hundred percent, but it made me a smarter player. I started using better shot fakes,” he says. “Sometimes after the games I couldn’t even carry my own bag, I’d have to ask someone like (teammate) Dave [DuBois], ‘hey can you carry my bag.’”

Petkus’ would red-shirt his senior season in 2004-2005 before graduating in 2006, and average between 4.3 and 4.9 points per game in all four years he saw the floor. Despite his injuries, upon graduation, Petkus was offered a contract to play in Spain’s LEB Gold league, the second division in Spain but one of the top professional league’s in the world and a chance to cash in on his dreams of playing professional ball.

“I had a contract sitting on my desk from Spanish league – second league in Spain,” he says.

But he decided to pass and put that dream to bed.

“At that point, I had played at Maine for five years and I hadn’t had one season that was healthy. Playing through pains and not being able to do things that you used to kind of took a toll on me, mentally,” he says. “I was married at the time and I had a baby and I didn’t want to take a chance to go to Spain and because of an injury or whatever reason get cut and have to make my way back.”

Moving on and heading home

After passing on pro ball, Petkus took a job in the corporate world and made good money, but he was miserable. When a position as a math teacher opened up at New Hampton, he jumped at the chance.

“I was making decent money,” he says. “After a year of being in the corporate world I hated it. I finally realized that is not who I am. I grew up with two parents who are educators, and I realized it’s in my blood.”

Petkus loved being back on campus and working with students, and soon joined the staff of the nationally renowned boys’ basketball team as an assistant. But being on the other side of the teacher-student divide was still a bit of an adjustment.

“The first couple years it was pretty weird – it was hard for me to start calling people that were my teachers, start calling them by their first name,” he says.

A chance to live out the elusive dream

Petkus (center) reunited with college teammates DuBois (left) and Flavin (right) to live out his dream of playing professional ball
Petkus (center) reunited with college teammates DuBois (left) and Flavin (right) to live out his dream of playing professional ball

 

In February of 2009 the Montreal Sasquatch, of the PBL, a floundering minor league, went bankrupt and needed to fill a roster to finish out their season. The Sasquatch reached out to Petkus’ college teammate and best friend, David DuBois. DuBois in turn reached out to Petkus and former Black Bear teammate Mark Flavin.

“He said the team ran out of money and the players left, they need to finish the season, would you be willing to play when they come to the states? Yes in a heartbeat,” he says.

It was not only a chance to for Petkus to experience the professional dreams that injuries had robbed him of, but also an opportunity to suit up next to his college teammates again.

“It was great to play with David, but Flav’ never passes the ball… I don’t want to play on the same team as Flav again,” he laughs. “In all seriousness it was great. Just running on the court with Dave and Flav, We spent four years at Maine – four great years, always practicing. Same practices, work out groups, lifting, we were together – busses, hotels and everything.”

Petkus lit it up in the first game, and began to seriously think about trying to give professional basketball a real go.

“Greatest experience I’ve had just to play with my boys and share that moment with them,” he says.

“Even though it is a minor league, you still had NBA players, high-level college players who are trying to move on the D-League or Europe or even NBA. I played really well the first game and I actually started to think about, what if I tried to get back in shape and go back to Europe. And then the season went on, played few more games. You know, still played OK, but then those nicks and pains came back.”

Switching coaching ranks

In the summer of 2011, the girls’ basketball head coaching position opened up at New Hampton. Petkus was eager to run his own program, but had never before coached girls.

“I never thought that I would ever think about being a women’s coach, but I saw some girls that were already on the team and how much time they spent in the gym – they were gym rats and they were more so than the guys,” he says.

Petkus spent a lot of time observing the team and also consulted former Boston University men’s basketball head coach Dennis Wolff, who had since made the switch to coaching the women’s team at Virginia Tech.

“Dennis Wolff was one of the guys that I talked [to]. And he put it simply: ‘Coaching is coaching, Freddy.’”

Petkus accepted the job and hasn’t looked back.

“It’s great. They’re more receptive than guys,” he says of coaching girls. “They really want to learn and they listen to everything you say.”

In his first season as head coach, Petkus led the Lady Huskies to a 23-2 record – the school’s best in nearly a decade – and an appearance in the NEPSAC conference title game. Four years later, he continues to relish his role at New Hampton.

“I want to help the kids, I want to show them the same experience that I received,” he says. “It’s not very easy to come, even from a different state, and live on campus as a 16, 18-year old kid.”

It has been more than 14 years since a scared and homesick kid from Plunge, Lithuania first set foot on campus at the New Hampton School. And it took a road less traveled journey six years later to finally bring him back. But a part of Petkus has always been here. After all, they say that home is where the heart is, and it’s obvious that Petkus’ has never left.

“I couldn’t ask for more. This is where I’m at, this is where my home is,” he says.

A thrilling night of Patriot League men’s basketball

Wednesday was one thrilling, chilling, and heart-palpitating rollercoaster ride for Patriot League men’s basketball, with four of the conference’s five games decided by four-points or less, including a come-from-behind overtime victory for Army, a buzzer-beating game-winning 3-pointer for American, and an exhilarating last-second comeback for Bucknell.

Here’s a quick look at the night’s action.

American 62 Lehigh 59

The Patriot League is truly a league where on any given night, anybody can play with anybody else in the conference, as evidenced by a downtrodden Lehigh squad giving defending conference champion American everything it could handle on the Eagles home court.

Six-foot-eleven sophomore center Tim Kempton was a monster for the Mountain Hawks, scoring 24 points on 10-of-17 shooting, to go with 13 rebounds in 37 minutes of action, helping Lehigh claim a 37-24 advantage on the glass.

But it wasn’t enough.

American senior shooting guard Jesse Reed scored 27 points on 10-of-14 shooting, including 4-of-7 from behind the arc, setting the stage for senior point guard Pee Wee Gardner’s heroics. Gardner scored just eight points on 3-of-8 shooting, but his final three made all the difference. With the game tied at 59 following Kempton’s short jumper with nine seconds remaining, the diminutive playmaker calmly pushed the ball the length of the floor, snuck around a screen from forward Charlie Jones at the top of the key and buried an NBA-range 3-pointer with 0.8 seconds left.

Gardner’s heroics followed up another clutch performance Saturday when he scored five points in the final 13 seconds of regulation in an eventual double-overtime win at Colgate.

American moves to 3-2 in league play while Lehigh drops to 1-4.

Army 72 Holy Cross 70 (OT)
In a battle between two teams that began the season looking like league frontrunners only to fall hard and fast over the past month, Army got a much-needed win while Holy Cross suffered a heart-breaking – and possibly devastating – defeat.

Dylan Cox’ lay-up with two seconds left in overtime pushed Army past Holy Cross on the Crusaders’ home court in Worcester, Massachusetts. Junior forward Tanner Plomb scored a season-high 28 points, including 25 in regulation, and junior guard Kyle Wilson added 22.

“This was a great win for our program,” Cox said. “We definitely responded today, I thought our defense was great at times, we got the stops when we needed to and were able to come away with the win.”

Freshman forward Mitchell Hahn scored 18 points in 26 minutes off the bench, hitting 5-of-8 shots and 3-of-5 from long-range, and junior guard Cullen Hamilton scored 14 points off the bench. While the Crusaders’ bench played great, their starters struggled, with Malachi Alexander the only starter to crack double figures, scoring 10 points on 2-of-6 shooting. None of Holy Cross’ starting five shot even 40 percent from the floor.

“Obviously it’s a tough way for the game to end for us. I was proud of the way we fought and got back into the game and took the lead. I thought both teams were being very aggressive,“ said Holy Cross head coach Milan Brown. “This is the third game for us in league play for us where we just come up one or two plays short. We’ve got to find a way to make one or two more winning plays – that’s the only way that winning is going to happen.”

Army led by 13 points with 14:38 remaining in the second half, but Holy Cross came roaring back to force overtime. Army led by four with just 34 seconds left in overtime, but big baskets from Hahn and Hamilton tied the game at 70 with 7 seconds remaining, setting the stage for Cox’ heroics.

Cox took the inbounds and pushed the ball the length of the floor – 94 feet – hitting a running lay-up with two seconds left for the win.

Army moves to 2-3 in league play, snapping a two-game conference losing streak, while Holy Cross falls to 1-4.

Bucknell 65 Navy 63

The Bison bounced back from an overtime loss against Holy Cross with a dramatic win over a Navy squad that had emerged as one of the surprises of the early conference slate.

Sophomore guard John Azzinaro scored 19 points in just 22 minutes, including a pair of late 3-pointers, shooting a blistering 6-of-7 from the field and an unconscious 5-of-5 from behind the arc. The diminutive point guard drilled a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer from the right wing with 1:17 left to tie the game at 61, and drilled another 3-pointer from the right corner with a little over 11 seconds left to grab the lead for good.

Navy won the rebounding battle 31-30, outshot the Bison from the floor (44.9 percent to 41.2 percent) and beat Bucknell at the free throw line (17-of-21 to 14-of-19), while also leading on the scoreboard for most of the game. But the Bison simply never quit.

“Navy out-played us for about 36-and-a-half minutes, but to our guys’ credit we didn’t panic,”said Bucknell head coach Dave Paulsen. “Obviously Johnny carried us down the stretch. We made a change in the starting lineup tonight, and he handled it like a champ.”

Freshman forward Nana Foulland had 12 points, seven rebounds and four blocks, and senior guard Steve Kaspar added six assists off the bench for Bucknell. Navy was led by senior forward Worth Smith, who scored 14 points, and also got 12 points from center Edward Alade and 11 from guard Kendall Knorr.

Both teams now sit at 3-2 in league play.

Lafayette 69 Loyola (MD) 65
After Loyola gave them everything they could handle for the first 20 minutes of action, the Leopards made just enough plays in the second half to escape with a hard-fought win at home.

Lafayette senior Seth Hinrichs hit five 3-pointers en route to 22 points, while senior forward Dan Trist and senior guard Joey Ptasinski added 13 points apiece. Lafayette hung on despite being out-rebounded 37-31, beaten at the line (Loyola hit 14-of-17 free throws to the Leopards’ 10-of-15) and played virtually even from the floor and behind the arc.

“My teammates did a great job of finding me,” said Hinrichs.

“Getting into league, it’s just so much different, everybody is well-prepared for you,” said Lafayette head coach Fran O’Hanlon after the game.

Tyler Hubbard scored 17 points on 6-of-12 shooting from the floor, going 5-of-9 from downtown, freshman guard Andre Walker scored 17 off the bench, guard Eric Lester added 13, and freshman forward Cam Gregory ripped down 12 rebounds.

Colgate 62 Boston University 53
That one must have felt good for the Raiders, who snapped a 20-game losing streak against Boston University, while simultaneously grabbing sole possession of first place in league play.

Boston University came out of the gates like gangbusters, jumping all over the Raiders, 20-8, to open the game, but the Raiders responded, outplaying the Terriers from there on out.

Colgate senior shooting guard Damon Sherman-Newsome led all scorers with 19 points on 6-of-11 shooting, including 5-of-9 from downtown, while also pulling down seven rebounds. Guard Luke Roh added 13 points and forward Matt McMullen pulled down a game-high 10 rebounds to help the Raiders score a 33-28 advantage on the glass.

Colgate held Boston University to 37.3 percent from the floor and 27.8 percent from behind the arc, while shooting 47.8 percent and 39.1 percent, respectively.

The Terriers were led by Eric Fanning’s 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting in 22 minutes off the bench, while freshman point guard Cheddi Mosely added 13 points and forward Nate Dieudonne added 10. Boston University’s leading scorer, Cedric Hankerson, who began the night averaging nearly 20 points per game, was held to just three on 1-of-8 shooting.

Stijn Dhondt, the Matthews Miracle, friendship and French — err Belgian — fries

Former Boston University Terrier Stijn Dhondt has played pro ball for 13 years in his native Belgium. Courtesy photo / Natalie Tijtgat
Former Boston University Terrier Stijn Dhondt has played pro ball for 13 years in his native Belgium. Courtesy photo / Natalie Tijtgat

Stijn Dhondt is fired up. Fired up over french fries. Excuse me, make that Belgian fries.

“They aren’t French, they’re Belgian, get it right!” the Belgian native and former Boston University Terrier booms from across the other side of the Atlantic. “You’re calling them ‘French Fries’ because you’re being stupid and you’re ignorant” he says in a voice that still scares the shit out of me despite the nearly 3,500 mile divide between us.

As fate would have it, a few minutes before Dhondt’s number flashed on my phone, I was listening to a short NPR segment on Belgium’s push to have their Frites recognized by United Nations’ Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) as an irreplaceable part of their cultural heritage. In a country divided along ethnic and language lines, it seems that Belgian fries — traditionally served in a wax-paper cone, with mayonnaise or vinegar — are the tie that binds all Belgians, with the ministers of culture of the Dutch speaking Flanders region, the French speaking Walloons, and the German speaking segments of the population all having all submitted official paperwork to UNESCO.

Cue Dhondt, and our friendship, built on happenstance, coincidence, tragedy and, yes, fate. Thirteen years ago, I was a high school senior and Dhondt was a senior at Boston University, a 6-foot-4-inch, 240-pound tank of a man who locked down opposing scorers, set the hardest screens in the league and was one of the most fun-loving players in America East history.

But on one cold night in January of 2002, Dhondt finally got mad. Mad enough to dive head-first into an all-out brawl with rival Hartford that spilled down the back stairwell at Case Gymnasium. The brawl follwed an end of the game buzzer beater by Hawks forward Deon Saunders, who promptly got in Dhondt’s face and bellowed “Ain’t nothin’ but a bucket!” after hitting the game-winner.

It preceded one of the the all-time great Karmic moments in basketball and the biggest shot in BU history.

On an unseasonably warm, extremely grey and rainy day on the first weekend in March, a little more than a month after Saunders’ shot, Dhondt was once again fired up at his foe. Only this time, it was Dhondt who was bellowing, “Ain’t nothing but a bucket.” Literally.

Dhondt had ripped Kevin Fitzgerald’s three-quarter court heave out of the stale air at ancient Matthews Arena away from three Hartford defenders, turned, fired and banked in the the game winner at the buzzer of the America East Tournament semifinals, sending the Terriers to a 63-60 win — momentum the Terriers rode all the way to the NCAA Tournament.

In the immediate aftermath of the shot that became known as the “Matthews Miracle,” Dhondt pounded his vanquished opponent on the chest and exclaim, “Ain’t Nothin’ but a Bucket, baby!” before dropping the s-bomb live on the NESN post-game interview, saying, “When it went in I was like, ‘Oh, shit!’” after a reporter shoved a microphone in his face.

Which brings us back to French — sorry, once again, Belgian — Fries. Yes, he was similarly fired up about that discrepancy.

“Sam, I’m going to slap you,” he says.

All over fries?

“They’re Belgian, man,” says Dhondt, who despite appearing to have negative body fat readily admits that he indulges in his country’s culinary delicacy. “We invented them hundreds of years ago; Americans have no sense of history,” he says, breaking into an all-out laugh.

Dhondt and I try to catch up about once a month, and usually do our best to take as many pot shots at each other as time will allow — me about his rapidly evaporating hairline, him about any number of my shortcomings.

“They called them ‘French Fries’ because they were too lazy to research that Belgium is it’s own country and we’ve never gotten the credit we deserve,” he says, breaking into another laugh.

Oh, how the times have changed. Back during his BU days, Dhondt was an American, at least an honorary one, who rocked platinum blond hair in a fresh hip-hop inspired fade, over-sized jeans and untied Timberland boots and spouted American slang.

Stijn Dhondt was a team captain for three years at Boston University.
Stijn Dhondt was a team captain for three years at Boston University. Photo courtesy of Boston University Athletics.

“Dennis Wolff used to call me an American,” says Dhondt, who grew up in Bornem, a town in the Antwerp province of northern Belgium.

“Stijn Dhondt was like the Vanilla Ice of basketball,” laughs former BU teammate Rashad Bell. “He sure dressed like Vanilla Ice.”

Now, 13 years after his Matthews’ Miracle landed him on Sports Center’s Top Plays of the week, month and year, and his post-game sound bite was played continuously across Boston’s sports radio stations (“Is Belgium part of Compton?” one local personality laughed after hearing him speak), Dhondt’s accent has returned. A married father of a rambunctious 5-year old son, the one-time Wildman of Comm. Ave is all grown up:

But his love of life and passion for the game remain.

Dhondt is truly the last man standing from his America East basketball class – the only senior from the conference’s Class of 2002 still playing professional basketball. In fact, only two America East players who ever set foot on the same college court as Dhondt — Bell and Vermont’s Taylor Coppenrath, both freshmen when Dhondt was a senior — are still playing professional basketball.

“It’s really been an amazing, remarkable ride,” Dhondt says. “It’s crazy that I’m the only one [from my class] still playing. Looking back, I’ve been amazingly lucky to have the career I have, play on some good and cool teams with great people, and win a few titles along the way.

“I still can’t believe that shot (against Hartford) went in. It still seems so surreal.”

Always much more of a bruiser than an athlete and lockdown defender and glue-guy than go to scorer, basketball has taken a toll on Dhondt’s body over the years, resulting in shoulder surgery midway through his career and microfracture surgery on his knees two seasons ago.

Photo courtesy of Boston University Athletics.
“I still can’t believe that shot (against Hartford) went in. It still seems so surreal.” – Stijn Dhondt Photo courtesy of Boston University Athletics.

Last season was a roller-coaster of draining emotions for Dhondt, who performed life-saving CPR and administered the defibrillator to a teammate who suffered a near-fatal heart attack on the court early in the season before leading his team to a regular season title and playoff championship.

“I just kept thinking of Trevor,” he says, his thoughts turning to his old America East foe, late University of Vermont center Trevor Gaines. After battling each other on the low blocks in college, Dhondt and Gaines formed a very strong friendship in Europe, where both were playing professionally. Gaines’ fatal heart attack during a pick up game in the summer of 2010 hit Dhondt hard.

“He was just such an amazing guy, once in a lifetime,” he says. “When it happened [my teammate suffered a heart attack], it was like I could see Trevor there, that was really hard to deal with.”

Selfishly, I hope that Dhondt keeps on playing. Dhondt’s heroics at Matthews Arena weren’t simply a compelling narrative of a one-time starter turned end-of-the-bench reserve finding redemption by hitting the most karmic big shot of his career. Sitting there in the stands watching his miracle fall into the bottom of the net was one of the most memorable, and final, moments I ever spent with my father, who died a year and a half later after a car accident. The memory of it, and the friendship that spawned between Dhondt and me in the aftermath, helped fill some of the void left behind. And in some strange way, Dhondt’s continued career kept a small part of my father alive all these years later.

As for the Fries: “We serve them with mayonnaise, which I guess is one of our shortcomings,” Dhondt laughs, “but once again, it’s our shortcoming.”

All this talk about food has made me hungry, what about Belgian waffles?

“Oh god, don’t even get me started,” he laughs.

Later that night, Dhondt met with his head coach — who was trying desperately to convince Dhondt to re-sign for one last hurrah following this season. According to Dhondt, it was a good meeting, but he remains undecided.

A few hours later Dhondt led his downtrodden Waregem squad, racked by injuries, onto the court against a first-placed Gent. For the next 40 minutes of action, Waregem laid the smack down on the championship favorites, walking away with a 14-point win.

“You know, it still feels good to pull off an upset and shock everyone,” says Dhondt with a laugh.

Here’s hoping for at least one more year of miracles.

The "Matthews' Miracle."  Courtesy photo / Boston University Athletics
The “Matthews’ Miracle.”
Courtesy photo / Boston University Athletics

If you enjoyed this story visit our features section for more compelling pieces on the inspiring players who suit up out of the limelight in the shadows of mid-major basketball.

Movie Preview: Stay Hungry, Stay Humble

Coaches have a saying about the unheralded players, the players who arrive with no hype, to whom nothing is handed and every inch of hardwood is earned. For his entire career, Dane DiLiegro has been starving. Unwanted and unrecruited by even Division III programs coming out of high school, DiLiegro, a one-time high school benchwarmer, worked and willed his way to becoming one of the greatest rebounders in school history and now a career in professional basketball.

But DiLiegro also suffers from a far more literal hunger.

A classic late bloomer on the court, DiLiegro has always dominated dinner tables and demolished dessert trays. A self-professed foodie and all-around colorful character, DiLiegro has maintained a website throughout his career called the Midnight Snack Beast (midnightsnackbeast.com) where he documents his culinary exploits while he travels the world playing pro ball.

Here’s a look at the upcoming One-Bid Wonders/Rufus Wrinklecap short film on DiLiegro’s love of food, titled “Stay Hungry, Stay Humble,” which premiers Jan. 20.

Albany outlasts tough New Hampshire team to pass road dest

Sam Rowley. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins
Sam Rowley. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins

Sam Rowley’s night did not start well. The senior captain, playing in front of his parents visiting from Australia, began the game just 2-for-8 from the field, with several of those misses off-balance, well-contested shots. But Rowley finished in style when it mattered most, scoring the game’s final four points, capped by a left handed hook shot with one second to go to give Albany (7-7, 2-0) a 64-62 road victory over the New Hampshire Wildcats on Tuesday night.

“I’m happy the shot went on, but there is more pressure if you are down or the game is tied,” Rowley said after the game, adding in his trademark, humble fashion, “the worst that could happen if I missed is that it’s overtime. Lost in the chaos of the final minute was that I really didn’t play particularly well.”

The Danes’ early season struggles to defend the three-ball nearly cost them the game, as New Hampshire (6-8, 0-2) scored 21 of their 29 first half points from downtown, and were consistent enough in the second half to keep the Danes from pulling away. The Wildcats finished 11-of-24 from deep, with six players each knocking down at least one.

Ray Sanders provided a spark for Albany early on as he poured in 13 first half points, hitting each of his first five shots, three of them coming from beyond the arc. Albany rode Sanders’ hot start to a 34-29 lead at the break.

The Wildcats started the second half with a 6-2 run to come within one, 41-40 with 15 minutes to play. But Albany responded with a 7-0 run to push the lead back to eight.

Another three-point fueled run put New Hampshire back in position to take the lead. Daniel Dion hit a three to make the score 50-47 with 11:32 on the clock. After a scoreless 90 seconds, Evan Singletary found Peter Hooley under the basket for a lay-up and foul. Hooley completed the and-one opportunity for a 53-47 Great Dane lead.

New Hampshire used a 5-0 Dion run to grab its first lead of the contest, 58-56, with three minutes left.

The teams went back-and-forth, as Singletary and [Sam] Rowley each went 2-of-2 from the free throw line late. Ronnel Jordan missed a corner three for the Wildcats with 36 seconds left, and after Singletary misfired on jumper from the elbow, Mike Rowley grabbed the offensive board with 3.5 seconds left. Albany called timeout to set up an out-of-bounds play under the basket.

After New Hampshire called their final timeout, sophomore Dallas Ennema found Rowley on the block, and the senior made the turn-around hook for the win.

Dion led the New Hampshire charge with 17 points, while Tanner Leissner pitched in 12 points while grabbing a game-high nine rebounds. For Albany, juniors Hooley and Singletary combined for 31 points.

New Hampshire will host Brown in a non-conference affair on Thursday before traveling to UMBC on Sunday. Albany will travel to UMass Lowell on Saturday.

Eric Fanning making an impact at Boston University

Boston University redshirt sophomore Eric Fanning scored 21 points, shooting 5-of-6 from the floor and 9-of-10 from the line, to go with seven rebounds and six assists in the Terriers 75-56 win over Lehigh. OBW Photo / Chris Dela Rosa.
Boston University redshirt sophomore Eric Fanning scored 21 points, shooting 5-of-6 from the floor and 9-of-10 from the line, to go with seven rebounds and six assists in the Terriers 75-56 win over Lehigh. OBW Photo / Chris Dela Rosa.

Eric Fanning gathered teammate Cedric Hankerson’s shovel pass in mid stride a few steps over half court, took one dribble and launched himself at the rim, taking off from outside of the paint. The swarm of Lehigh defenders could do little more than peel out of the way to avoid getting posterized as Fanning reached back at full extension with his right hand – grabbing that little extra “oomph” – and slammed the ball through the cylinder, sealing the Terriers’ 75-56 win.

Fanning dunked the ball with so much authority that the rim remained shaking even after the Mountain Hawks had inbounded the ball and headed back up the court. It had been a long time coming.

The last Fanning had played a single minute of college basketball before Boston University tipped off its season on Nov. 16 at the TD Garden for the Coaches vs. Cancer Massachusetts Tripleheader, was on Feb. 8, 2013. At that time, Fanning was a freshman suiting up for the Wagner Seahawks. He played eight minutes in a losing effort against Robert Morris and didn’t leave the end of the bench for the rest of the season.

The 2012-13 season came to a close with Fanning riding the pine for nearly a month at the end of Wagner’s bench, and the Trenton, New Jersey native decided it was time for a change. That change for him meant leaving New York City for another northeast metropolis, Boston, and joining the Terriers.

Due to NCAA transfer rules, Fanning could only watch as the Terriers made a run to the 2013-14 Patriot League title game.

“Sitting out that year was really hard, because I hadn’t really played,” said Fanning.

Through much of this season, Fanning was just working on getting his basketball legs back under him and getting used to being a part of the BU system on the court.

“He was taking baby steps,” said BU head coach Joe Jones. “He played like half of a season at Wagner, sat all of last year, so it’s really like it’s his freshman year. That’s the thing you have to understand, you have to be patient.”

It may still be early in his career, but the 22-year-old redshirt sophomore looked like a seasoned veteran on the court for the Terriers as they knocked off Lehigh at home on Saturday afternoon. In 22 minutes, Fanning played a complete game of basketball, scoring 21 points, shooting 5-of-6 from the floor, 2-of-2 from behind the arc and 9-of-10 from the line, while grabbing seven rebounds, dishing out six assists and limiting himself to only one turnover.

“I was just trying to be more aggressive offensively,” said Fanning.

That aggressive mentality could be seen all afternoon in Fanning’s play. He began the day coming in off the bench and dishing an assist to John Papale who hit a 3-pointer to put BU up 16-4. Two possessions later, he collected a defensive rebound to get BU’s offense started, and then cleaned up a carom on the offensive end, passed it out to Hankerson, who, just like Papale, hit a shot from long range, and BU took a commanding 19-4 lead early on. The embodiment of Fanning’s aggressiveness was, of course, his big slam with 7:19 left to push the Terriers’ lead to  70-37.

After showing flashes throughout the non-conference season, Fanning seemed to have put it all together on Saturday, something both player and coach attributed to a growing bond between the two.

“He and I had a heart-to-heart last night,” said Jones. “He really came in focused and energized. I thought he came back from the Christmas break really focused. I don’t think he played that great against Wentworth, but he was ready to play tonight.”

Not only is Jones a source of influence for Fanning, but his teammates continue to push him as well.

“My teammates find me, they yell at me to shoot the ball, be confident,” said Fanning. “They seem to have more confidence in me than I do at times. They’re always pushing me to play my game. Luckily it worked today.”

It is still early in Fanning’s career, and with so much depth at the shooting guard and small forward positions on this year’s Terriers team, Fanning is still finding his niche, which has included stretches where the 6’5” 190-pounder has played power forward. It’s a role that Fanning has accepted and thrown himself into, saying all he cares about is doing everything he can to help the team win.

“As of now I’m not a starter, so do whatever I can off the bench,” said Fanning.

And it’s made a big difference. After sputtering to a 4-7 record against Division I foes during the non-conference slate, the Terriers have hit the Patriot League like a runaway freight train, knocking off Holy Cross and Lehigh squads that looked like conference contenders in back-to-back games and stand atop the league standings at 2-0. In those two games, Fanning has played a total of 40 minutes, scoring 26 points, pulling down nine rebounds and dishing out seven assists while shooting 7-of-9 from the floor and 10-of-11 from the line.

Most importantly, the Terriers have played like a team and won.

“If no one’s rebounding the ball, come in grab rebounds,” Fanning said of his role. “If we’re lackadaisical on offense, come in and try to be aggressive on offense, get some foul calls, make some open shots. Just come in and be confident.”

Through 13 games Eric Fanning is averaging 9.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.5 points in 20 minutes per game, while shooting 43.2 percent from the floor, 41.7 percent from downtown and 80 percent from the free throw line. OBW Photo / Chris Dela Rosa.
Through 13 games Eric Fanning is averaging 9.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.5 points in 20 minutes per game, while shooting 43.2 percent from the floor, 41.7 percent from downtown and 80 percent from the free throw line. OBW Photo / Chris Dela Rosa.

Navy basketball gets knocked down by injuries, hopes to get back up

Navy's Worth Smith has given the Midshipmen a boost after returning from a knee injury. US Presswire photo by Mark L. Baer
Navy’s Worth Smith has given the Midshipmen a boost after returning from a knee injury. US Presswire photo by Mark L. Baer

It has certainly not been the season Navy basketball head coach Ed DeChellis imagined back when his Midshipmen tipped off their season on Nov. 14 by giving 18th ranked Michigan State everything it could handle. The Mids showed tremendous promise in their 64-59 loss, and it looked like this might be the season they make it out of the Patriot League basement.

Maybe the Mids can still make their move towards the top of the conference, but the journey there will have been anything but a straight line or a smooth ride.

Starting with their season opener, the team has been racked by injuries, while simultaneously playing a schedule full of power conference heavy hitters.

“It’s been a tough schedule, we’ve had a lot of guys hurt and I’m not sure where we’re at,” said DeChellis.

Before the season even began, the Mids lost one of their projected starters, junior guard Kendal Knorr, to a knee injury. Then during the Michigan State game, they lost one of their best players in senior forward Worth Smith to a knee injury. They also lost sophomore wing Michael Brown to a broken jaw and sophomore guard Tim Abruzzo to a torn ACL.

Losing Knorr and Smith pretty much left senior guard Brandon Venturini on the floor as the only proven player capable of consistently producing early on. And the Midshipmen’s 0-4 start and 2-7 continuation was a reflection of being forced to play so many young players against some very strong opponents.

“We’ve played a lot of young kids, and I guess that’s good for the long-term, because they get some experience, but it hasn’t really transferred to the wins and losses,” said DeChellis. “We played a brutal schedule, non-conference, especially really early. We really ran into the buzz saw early with Michigan State, Notre Dame, Providence, Northeastern.”

Navy was able to pick up its first win by scraping past Binghamton, before downing Division III Harrisburg. After losing three straight following their first two wins, the Midshipmen have won two of their last three, knocking off VMI, losing to UMES, and then downing Towson 61-56 for their best win of the year. Against the Tigers, the Mids received reinforcements in the form of the return of Knorr, Smith and Brown, and will enter conference play with a 4-9 record.

Amidst all of the losses and roster shuffling during the non-conference, DeChellis was able to uncover a solid small forward in freshman Shawn Anderson.

“Shawn Anderson has been very solid for us at the three spot. That’s been nice to see. All of the other freshman have had their moments where they pitched in, but he’s probably been the most consistent of the young guys who have had to play.”

Unfortunately, the injury bug has now hit Anderson, and he has missed several days due to a concussion.

And although DeChellis’ team continues to get knocked down by things out of his control, he remains positive.

“I don’t know where we’re at because the guys that played for us last year, we hoped would play substantial minutes for us this year, have not played,” said DeChellis. “But I like what we did last week, had everyone back against Towson, and able to win a game at home.”

It still remains to be seen what this year’s Navy team can really do at full, or close to full, strength. But after the slate of losing seasons and injuries, the only way to go for DeChellis and his team is up.

“I think we’ll become better as the conference season goes on, once those guys are back and more comfortable,” said DeChellis.

Jimmy Patsos gives epic, unmistakably Boston, post game press conference

Aside from Marquis Wright’s brilliant performance (a career-high 31 points on 12-of-15 shooting from the floor) Siena head coach Jimmy Patsos was not happy with his team’s effort in its 69-67 loss at Fordham on Monday night. Following the game, the Somerville, Massachusetts, native gave an absolutely epic, unmistakably Boston post-game press conference.

Words do not do Patsos’ interview justice, so give it a watch for yourself — trust us, this is five minutes well spent.

(As an aside, Patsos references OBW reporter Ari Kramer as his “young friend.”)