Zaid Hearst scored 20 of his 24 points before halftime as Quinnipiac defeated Oregon State 60-52. (Photo courtesy of Big Apple Buckets)
Those who know Quinnipiac University have come to define the Connecticut school by its hard-nosed rebounding and aggressive frontcourt presences over the years, with names such as Justin Rutty, Ike Azotam, and current senior Ousmane Drame among the first to be read off as entries among the hypothetical Who's Who of Bobcat basketball alumni.
However, Quinnipiac's backcourt has also come to be held in the same regard. For every Rutty, Azotam, or Drame, there is a James Johnson, Dave Johnson, or Zaid Hearst to be paired up with the litany of big men to come into and out of Hamden; and this afternoon, Hearst played a large role in ensuring the validity of such a statement.
Scoring 20 of his 24 points in the first half, and holding leading scorer Gary Payton II scoreless in a rare home game against Oregon State, (8-3) Hearst set the tone early and often for Quinnipiac, who improved to 5-5 by walking off their home floor at the TD Bank Sports Center with a 60-52 victory over the Beavers for the school's first-ever win against a team from a BCS conference.
"It's always good to get a win in general," said Hearst, whose output led all scorers. "The first half, I was just making shots. I wanted to be aggressive on offense and defense."
Prior to this afternoon, what was regarded as the biggest win in Quinnipiac history was a victory over a then-Jim Baron-led Rhode Island team out of the Atlantic 10. Between Hearst and Evan Conti, who added 14 points of his own, the Bobcats made sure the narrative was changed in their penultimate nonconference game before MAAC play resumes in January.
"I'm really proud of our team," head coach Tom Moore gushed while declaring Oregon State to be the best team the Bobcats faced up to this point in the season. "I'm really proud of our effort, I'm really proud of the fact that we're starting to get contributions."
Such a game was scheduled through the efforts of Moore, and the support of athletic director Jack McDonald and university president John Lahey, to engage the Beavers in a two-for-one contract that will see Quinnipiac making a second trip to Corvallis after traveling there to play Oregon State a year ago. The step up in competition was evident from the start, as despite Hearst opening the scoring with a three-pointer, the Beavers connected on each of their first five attempts from beyond the arc to open up a 17-9 advantage eight minutes into the first half.
A vintage Quinnipiac rebounding performance, which ultimately ended with the Bobcats earning a plus-19 margin (46 to 27) on the boards, most notably to the tune of 18-6 on the offensive glass, pulled them back into the game during a 13-0 run that saw the home team pull down 12 caroms in a span of only 2:38. All told, the Bobcat spurt reached 21-5 before the intermission, where Hearst's 20 points guided Quinnipiac to a 32-26 lead at halftime.
With the Bobcats' senior guard and leading scorer being made more of a priority on the defensive end, a second presence was needed on the scoreboard. Enter Conti, the Bayside native who did not receive a single Division I scholarship offer besides the one he ended up accepting. With Oregon State threatening to close into the lead on two separate occasions, Conti drained a three-pointer to hold the Beavers at bay each time, his second one giving Quinnipiac a 40-33 lead with 13:48 remaining.
"He's got confidence," Moore said of his other senior shooter, "and I thought he did a good job early in the game finding gaps against the zone. He's been fearless all four years, and I love how he's kept that chip on his shoulder his whole time here."
Oregon State, who was led by an 18-point effort from Olaf Schaftenaar, would not regain the lead in the second half, due to both Quinnipiac's ability to counterpunch the visiting Beavers and Hearst's defense of Payton, the son of the Seattle SuperSonics legend who also wore black and orange in Corvallis during his collegiate career. However, even after the junior point guard fouled out with 3:18 remaining, his team still managed to pull within three, at 53-50, before Ousmane Drame's jumper made it a five-point game. Hearst and Conti then proceeded to hit free throws the rest of the way to close out a win that, by most accounts, would have seemed improbable on paper.
"Just the fact that we were able to host a Pac-12 team speaks volumes about where this program has gone," said Moore, who always seems to find a way to further the success of a school whose name may not be a household staple, is always in the mix when it comes to continued success stories.
"To get a win against a Pac-12 team is definitely a good feeling," Hearst further intimated. "I think it shows how good we can be, especially in the long run."