Posts Tagged ‘Nate Sikma’

Coaches Q & A series: Hartford’s John Gallagher — We’ve come a long way, baby

Monday, September 8th, 2014
Hartford head coach John Gallagher. OBW file photo / Sam Perkins

Hartford head coach John Gallagher. OBW file photo / Sam Perkins

The summer of 2010 was a crazy time for John Gallagher. In a matter of eye-blinks, the then 32-year old Gallagher went from not having a guaranteed paycheck as the assistant on the staff of good friend and interim head coach Jerome Allen at Penn, to a guaranteed gig when Allen was hired as the head coach, only to turn around be immediately hired as the associate head coach Boston College by close friend and mentor Steve Donahue.

But before Gallagher could even unpack his bags in Chestnut Hill, he was offered his first head coaching position at Hartford – a program he had helped build the foundation for only a few years earlier.

The catch, of course, was that Gallagher would be replacing his best friend, Dan Leibovitz, who had just resigned after two scuffling seasons. Gallagher had been the top assistant and lead recruiter on Leibovitz’ original staff, helping to take the program from the conference play-in game in 2007, to a then program record 18 wins and the America East championship game in 2008 (the program’s only appearance in the America East Championship).

In the two years after Gallagher left for an assistant coaching position at Penn, Hartford crashed and burned, winning a combined 15 games while getting trounced in two-straight conference tournaments – including a 41-point embarrassment on its home court against Boston University in 2010.

Shortly after taking the reigns, and before he had coached a single official practice, Gallagher and his new – and old – team (he had recruited virtually the entire senior class during his first stint in Hartford) boarded 30 hour flight to Australia for a 10-day tour of basketball and team building.

Four years later, the Hawks returned to The Land Down under, but while the destination was the same, everything else regarding the team has changed dramatically.

“Four years ago, I was hearing from two people: Sam Perkins, and my mother,” he laughed. “When I got back this year, I’ve already had calls from at least six different reporters wanting to talk about Australia.”

In his first season in Hartford, the Hawks won 11 wins, finishing sixth, before knocking off third-seed Maine in the conference tournament. That off season, Gallagher landed what has proven to be a game-changing six-man freshman class, among them power forward and future First Team All-Conference selection Mark Nwakamma, and starters Yolonzo Moore III (point guard), Corban Wroe (guard/forward) and Nate Sikma.

Before they could help the program turn the proverbial corner, that freshman class had to endure one of the harshest trials by fire, losing the first 13 games of their careers to open the 2011-2012 season. But the Hawks survived, finishing 7-9 in conference play, upset third-seed Boston University in the tournament quarterfinals and took Vermont to the limit before losing a double-overtime thriller in the semis.

The Hawks have won 17 games in each of the past two seasons, and continue to knock on the door that separates the true conference powers from the rest of the America East. Injuries, an inconsistent low-post presence, and arguably an over reliance on the three-ball have continued to stand in Hartford’s way from truly contending for a title.

With six seniors, including Nwakamma, who has entrenched himself as THE single most important player on the roster – and perhaps the single-most important Hawk since Vin Baker when considering his importance to Hartford’s title hopes – on the roster, this would seem to be the most important year both in Gallagher’s career and Hartford basketball history. Yet the fifth-year head coach refuses to see it that way.

Upon returning from 14 days in Australia, highlighted by five games against professional teams, and sightseeing trips to Sydney Harbor, Melbourne, and The Great Barrier Reef, among other spots, Gallagher sat down with One-Bid Wonders to talk about the Hawks’ recent trip to the land of Koala’s and Kangaroos. He also looked ahead to the upcoming season, touching upon what he views as needed areas of improvement and the keys – and barometer – of a successful season, as well as why he loves recruiting Aussies.

Gallagher also took a look back at his long, and strange journey to West Hartford and back again, offering insight on what it was like to replace his best friend, and his desire for the program to never forget its humble roots.

Sam Perkins: How was the return trip to Australia?

I went four years ago. And this time around, to have a team that can compete against some of the professional teams makes you feel good from basketball standpoint. But from a life-experience standpoint, our players will never forget what they experienced and I won’t forget it.

In addition to the basketball, what were some of the more memorable experiences from The Land Down Under?

Looking out over Sydney Harbor, touring Melbourne, visiting the Great Barrier Reef. They were incredible.

When we went on the Great Barrier Reef, everybody was snorkeling, and a few of us dived, and a few of us went on this machine called the “Scuba Doo.”

Going to the AFL (the premier) Australian rules football league game and there’s 85,000 people, it was a sport that our players don’t really know, but they really got into it.

(Editor’s Note: The Scuba Doo is a tiny, motorized, personalized submarine of sorts, in which the passenger’s head goes inside an air bubble, allowing them to sightsee underwater for prolonged periods).

So who were the best swimmers on the team?

There’s three great swimmers: The elite swimmers are Corban Wroe, Nate Sikma and Jamie Schneck.

Did anyone box a kangaroo or wrestle a crocodile while you were down there?

Well, I can’t really speak for what Corban does on his own time…

Speaking of Corban, he may have been the most improved player in the entire league last season, going from a defense-only role player during his first two and a half years in the league, to a go to scorer. What can you tell me about him and his transformation?

The funny story about Corban is, when we first tried to recruit him after the first trip (to Australia four years ago), he said “thanks but no thanks” — we were so bad. A few months later, coach G (associate head coach Chris Gerlufsen) told me that Corban actually had some interest in us, and I said, “nah, nah, we have no interest in him.”

Coach G had to put his foot down and tell me to check my ego because he was a program-changing player. Corban Wroe is one guy who is the heart and soul of what we do and what we’re about as a program. Corban coming from that distance and making the commitment is just awesome. (more…)

Refuse to Lose

Sunday, March 10th, 2013
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UMBC head coach and the Retrievers bench exploded when senior guard Brian Neller drilled a dagger-three with 1:16 remaining to seal sixth-seeded UMBC’s upset win over three-seed Hartford (Photo by Sam Perkins).

(Albany, New York) – With 1:13 remaining, UMBC head coach Aki Thomas knelt on the edge of the court, pumped both his fists and let out a mighty roar that rose above the din of the crowd and ricocheted off the far walls of SEFCU Arena.

For the better part of a decade, emotional outbursts – tantrums, tirades and all manner of explosions – emanating from the Retrievers head coach have been common place on the UMBC sidelines.

But nothing like this.

Two days earlier, Thomas had been signed to a one-year contract and named the Retriever’s head coach, after spending the previous season – his first at the helm in Catonsville – wearing the “interim” tag. Now, he watched from the sidelines as senior sniper Brian Neller’s sixth three pointer of the night, a back-breaker from the right corner, found nothing but the bottom of the net, sealing the sixth-seeded Retrievers 69-62 upset of third-seed Hartford in the America East Tournament Quarterfinals.

What followed was a moment of pure euphoria and unadulterated joy. The Retrievers bench – downtrodden and defeated for the previous three seasons – followed their coach’s lead, leaping in excitement, embracing one another and bellowing towards the rafters.

“It’s never really been too much about me, it’s always been about the players and I always knew I was going to be okay. It’s always been for them – they’re the one that have been doing three tough seasons,” said Thomas after the game.

UMBC senior guards Ryan Cook and Brian Neller flat-out refused to watch their careers end on Saturday afternoon, willing the Retrievers to their first America East Tournament victory in four years. Playing in what could have been the final game of their careers, the duo put their team on their backs and combined for 44 points on 15-of-26 shooting.

Cook, who began his college career as a Division II walk-on before walking-on to his home-town team as a junior, was everywhere, pouring in a game-high 24 points on 8-of-13 shooting while playing frenetic defense. The 6’2” senior scored from everywhere on the court – step back jumpers, dizzying drives to the bucket, post-up hoops in the paint, while making one hustle play after the next. Cook single-handedly rattled off a 12-0 second half run, turning an eight-point deficit into a four-point lead. (more…)

Numbers lie, Effort Doesn’t

Monday, March 4th, 2013
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Nate Sikma watches, along with the capacity crowd at Patrick Gymnasium, as his three-pointer at the buzzer hangs in the air. Sikma’s shot found the bottom of the net, giving the Hawks a 61-58 win (Photo by Sam Perkins).

(Burlington, VT) – The saying goes that numbers don’t lie, but on a cold Sunday in The Green Mountain State, they did just that.

In nearly every statistical category, host Vermont pasted visiting Hartford: The Catamounts out-rebounded the Hawks by a staggering 20 boards, 34-14, while outscoring Hartford 28-10 in the paint and 27-18 off the bench. Vermont outshot Hartford from the floor (50 percent to 43.9 percent), outscored them in second-chance and fast-break points while taking seven more free throws than the Hawks, who were whistled for 10 more fouls.

But when sophomore forward Nate Sikma’s pick-and-pop three from the left corner found the bottom of the net as the final buzzer echoed off of the back wall of Patrick Gymnasium – a shot that survived the ensuing official review – it was Hartford who walked off the court the 61-58 winner.

Toughness, effort and energy – along with dead-eye sharpshooting from behind the arc – proved to be the great equalizer for the Hawks, who snapped a 15 game losing streak against the Catamounts with their first victory over Vermont since 2006.

“They flat out beat us tonight,” said Vermont forward Luke Apfeld, “They just came out and kind of took it to us on our home court.”

“If you have toughness and energy, if you have those two you can win a lot of games,” said third-year Hartford head coach John Gallagher, whose team improved to 17-10 on the season and 10-6 in conference play.

It wasn’t always pretty, but the Hawks simply played harder for longer than the comatose Catamounts, out-hustling Vermont to loose-balls, getting under the Catamounts’ skin in scrums and flustering and frustrating Vermont’s offense with frenetic D: The Catamounts committed 20 turnovers to just seven assists.

“They were tougher than us across the board today and the turnovers were a clear indicator of that,” said Apfeld.

Playing the majority of the game without star forward and go-to scorer Mark Nwakamma, the Hawks buried 12 three’s while shooting a blistering 48 percent from behind the arc (12-of-25).

“We have toughness; we find ways to win,” said Gallagher. “We’re a program now – we’re much more than just one player.” (more…)

Lucky and Good

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

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Hartford sophomore forward Mark Nwakamma poured in 23 points in the Hawks 60-55 win over first place Stony Brook on Sunday. It was Nwakamma’s third straight game of 20 or more points (Photo by Sam Perkins)

(West Hartford, CT) – The saying goes, it’s better to be lucky than good. On Sunday, the University of Hartford Hawks were both.

The Hawks executed their game plan to perfection down the stretch, sophomore forward Mark Nwakamma played a near perfect game and Hartford got an assist from the perfect storm to knock off the first place Stony Brook 60-55. The Hawks rode blistering shooting, relentless effort, stifling defense, and their horse in Nwakamma, to erase a nine-point second half deficit and end a nine game losing streak against the Seawolves.

“It’s just a great quality win and speaks to the strides these players have been committed to since they’ve gotten here,” said Hartford head coach John Gallagher.

“Give credit to Hartford; they played well for 40 minutes tonight. They made shots, and we didn’t play enough defense or make our free throws tonight,” said Stony Brook head coach Steve Pikiell. “They played better for 40 minutes, and they deserved to win.”

Nwakamma poured in a game-high 23 points on 10-of-14 shooting, his third straight game of 22 or more points, to go with six rebounds and two assists. The 6’6” sophomore put the Hawks on his back, blowing past double teams while carrying his team in the clutch. After a 5-0 Stony Brook run put the Seawolves up 45-44 with just under eight minutes remaining, Nwakamma responded seven straight points, staking Hartford to a 51-46 lead they would not relinquish.

Hartford shot 51.1 percent from the floor (23-of-45) and 43.5 percent from downtown (10-of-23), while holding Stony Brook to 44 percent from the floor (22-of-50) and just 18.2 percent from three (2-of-11). Hartford weathered the Seawolves storm in the first half, with Stony Brook shooting a blistering 53.8 percent (14-of-26) to go into the locker room leading 33-27. Hartford regrouped and held Stony Brook to just 33.3-percent from the floor (8-of-24) after the intermission, while shooting an unconscious 60 percent from the field (12-of-20) including a ridiculous 63.6 percent from downtown (7-of-11).

The Hawks were out-rebounded 32-25, and beaten badly on second chance points (16-4) and points in the paint (40-16). But the Hawks turned the tide on the defensive end, turning15 Seawolves turnovers into 18 points. Hartford also outscored Stony Brook 22-8 in bench points.

Freshman point guard Evan Cooper came off the bench to score 11 points on 4-of-8 shooting, including 3-of-6 from downtown, for Hartford, to go along with two assists and two steals. Sophomore forward Nate Sikma added nine points, hitting 3-of-6 treys. Sophomore guard Yolonzo Moore II and graduate-transfer forward John Peterson added six points apiece.

Stony Brook was led by sensational freshman center Jameel Warney, who continues to look the part of not simply the Rookie of the Year, but quite possibly the conference Player of the Year. Warney shrugged off constant double-teams to pour in 21 points while ripping down a game-high nine rebounds. The 6’8” 250 pound center has emerged as the best America East freshman big since the legendary Taylor Coppenrath and on Sunday was completely unstoppable whenever he got the ball in his hands, hitting 9-of-11 shots while committing a lone turnover. (more…)

Flying High

Thursday, January 10th, 2013
Hartford freshman guard Evan Cooper slices through five Maine defenders to finish off a Mark Nwakamma (not shown) pass for a big second-half bucket. Cooper scored 13 points and Hartford won 68-61 (photo by Sam Perkins).

Hartford freshman guard Evan Cooper slices through five Maine defenders to finish off a Mark Nwakamma (not shown) pass for a big second-half bucket. Cooper scored 13 points and Hartford won 68-61 (photo by Sam Perkins).

(West Hartford, CT) — There’s a world of difference between high volume and high percentage shooting, and it’s the difference between current University of Hartford Men’s basketball team and its previous incarnates.

The Hawks have always played hard – furious, frenetic energy is a staple of teams playing under fiery third-year head coach John Gallagher and a prerequisite for players he recruits. Now, the Hawks are playing smart; forgoing the bombs away offense relying on forced three’s in favor of running their offense through their front court, hitting the glass and taking what defenses gave them.

On Wednesday, playing a matinee which tipped off at noon before a raucous crowd of nearly 3,000 – almost all students from local grade and high schools – in a battle between unbeatens in America East play, the Hawks played a near-perfect game and knocked off visiting Maine 68-61.

“I thought our guys really, really came out ready to go,” said Gallagher after the game. “We have the talent, now we’re starting to really learn how to play together.”

Sophomore forward Mark Nwakamma led Hartford with a game-high 23 points on 10-of-17 shooting, dished out a career-high eight assists to just three turnovers and pulled down a team-high seven rebounds – all on the defensive end. Freshman point guard Evan Cooper scored 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting to go with three steals and two assists and sophomore guard Yolonzo Moore II scored 16 points while drilling 4-of-8 three’s, while dishing out five assists and swiping three steals.

Hartford shot 52.2 percent from the floor (24-of-46), 47.6 percent from behind the arc (10-of-21), and dished out 18 assists to 13 turnovers. (more…)

Hard Work Beats Talent When Talent Doesn’t Work Hard

Monday, January 7th, 2013
Hartford guard Wes Cole (Right) buries one of his six three's of the game. Cole scored a game-high 22 points and Hartford knocked off Boston University 77-74 on Saturday in Boston (Photo by Sam Perkins).

Hartford guard Wes Cole (Right) buries one of his six three’s of the game. Cole scored a game-high 22 points and Hartford knocked off Boston University 77-74 on Saturday in Boston (Photo by Sam Perkins).

(Boston, MA) – “Hard Work Beats Talent When Talent Doesn’t Work Hard.”

It is a well trod saying in the lexicon of sports, referencing effort as the great equalizer. No team in recent history has better epitomized that saying than the University of Hartford men’s basketball program, and no where was the saying more fitting than in summarizing the Hawks 77-74 come from behind road win over Boston University on Saturday.

Effort, energy and intestinal fortitude were the deciding factors, as the Hawks refused to lose, out-hustling and out-muscling the Terriers to every loose ball and rebound while charging back from three separate eight-point deficits. During the games frantic final minutes, Hartford shifted into overdrive, while Boston University simply ran out of gas.

“You have to credit the defense in the second half for that stretch there where we got stops,” said Hartford head coach John Gallagher, visibly exhausted after the game.

“I’m just really disappointed in our effort,” said Terriers head coach Joe Jones. “They just beat us to loose balls, chased down loose balls; we got out-rebounded by a team that we’re even bigger than.”

Sophomore’s Wes Cole and Nate Sikma combined to score 41 points for Hartford. Cole came off the bench to score a game-high 22 on 7-of-15 shooting including six 3’s, and Sikma added 19 to go along with a game-high eight rebounds.

Bulldog sophomore guard Corban Wroe scored just three points, but played an equally huge role in the Hawks win, playing balls-out defense on the Terriers vaunted back-court, swiping three steals, drawing three second-half charges and making an incalculable number of hustle-plays. (more…)

Going Down Swinging: Hartford shows promise, raised expectations, in season opening loss to Quinnipiac

Sunday, November 11th, 2012

For Hartford head coach John Gallagher, a good effort is no longer good enough (Photo by Sam Perkins).

(West Hartford) – Last year, the University of Hartford lost its first game of the season. Then it lost the next, and the next, and the next, and the next. The Hawks opened their season losers of their first 13 games in a row, before finally cracking the win column.

On Saturday afternoon, the Hawks fell in their season opener – the opening game of the Connecticut 6 Classic – to Quinnipiac, 65-61. But if Saturday’s game was any indication, this should be a very different season for Hartford.

“Overall, I’m excited about the effort,” said Hartford head coach John Gallagher. “It was a great college game; it was a war.”

On Saturday, the Hawks went toe-to-toe and elbow-for-elbow, in an ugly, physical, and foul-plagued game against a Quinnipiac roster that thrives playing bully-ball in such an environment, and seemed tailor-made to exploit every one of the Hawks weaknesses from a year ago.

“It [was] a toughness contest,” said Quinnipiac head coach Tom Moore.

“We knew that they were going to come out strong, and we made it our mindset to meet them and come out strong as well,” said sophomore forward Mark Nwakamma.

Nwakamma led Hartford with 15 points, adding four rebounds, two assists and a steal, despite being limited to just 26 minutes of action because of fouls. Sophomore forward Nate Sikma added 11 points and a game-high nine rebounds, while sophomore point guard Yolonzo Moore added nine points, eight rebounds, and three assists. Reserve forwards Oren Faulk and Jamie Schneck added seven and six points, respectively.

Quinnipiac was led by junior forward Ike Azotam, who scored a game-high 17 points and ripped down nine rebounds to go with two blocks. Senior guard (and former Vermont Catamount) Garvey Young scored 15 points, including two crucial three’s down the stretch. Forwards Jamee Jackson and Ousmane Drame combined for 15 points and four blocks. (more…)

Hawks exorcise old demons with 53-49 upset of BU

Sunday, March 4th, 2012

Photo Courtesy of America East Athletic Communications

(West Hartford, CT) –On March 3rd, 2002, after 39 minutes and 59.2 seconds of game time, the University of Hartford and Boston University stood tied, 60-60, in the America East tournament.

In the eight-tenths of game time that followed, amazing happened. Terriers reserve (and ultimate-role player) Stijn Dhondt corralled a full-court inbounds heave behind the three point arc on the right wing, turned, and banked in the game winner, propelling the Terriers to the Championship game and on to the NCAA tournament, while dashing Hartford hopes and torpedoing the Hawks program for years to come.

Although his name and heroics have been largely forgotten by the next generation of America East hoops, Dhondt’s shot continues to reverberate around the league, and had hung over the head of Hartford’s program for a decade.

Ten years later to the day, against the same opponent, it was the Hawks who hit back-breaking three’s in the games closing moments, knocking off the Terriers while taking a step towards finally ridding themselves of the monkey that has hung on their backs since the “Matthews Miracle.”

“I think this could be a springboard win,” said Gallagher, who was well aware of the buzzer beater a decade earlier. “I’m so proud,” he added.

The Hawks held Boston University without a field goal for the final 6:14 of playing time, and responded from a tough first-half shooting performance, hitting 52.4 percent (11-21) of their second half shots en route to a 53-49 upset win.

Freshmen forwards Nate Sikma and Mark Nwakamma put the Hawks on their shoulders, leading Hartford to a comeback win in the games final minutes. Sikma scored a team high 16 points, burying four huge 3’s; Nwakamma battled his way to 13 points while ripping down a game-high 16 rebounds. (more…)

Hawks Win! Hawks Win! Hartford ends 0-13 start to the season with effort, enthusiasm

Saturday, January 7th, 2012

(West Hartford, Conn.) — Hartford assistant coach Drew Dawson sat alone in his office late Friday afternoon. The Hawks stood at 0-13 – fresh off of a 25-point beatdown at conference rival Albany. They were one of only five teams in all of Division-I without a victory, and were off to one of the worst starts to a season in America East history.

“Tonight’s the night,” said Dawson as he affixed a skully-cap to his head and headed outside for a breath of fresh air. There was no fear in his voice, no anxiety – no false bravado either – just quiet but solemn resolve.

Four hours later, the final buzzer sounded, with the battered, bruised-and-bloodied, but not beaten, Hawks standing victorious, with an incredibly hard-fought 56-49 victory over conference rival New Hampshire. (more…)