Corey Henson's all-conference-caliber play has piloted Wagner back into thick of Northeast Conference championship chase as Seahawks gear up for postseason play. (Photo by Jonathan Reyes/Daly Dose Of Hoops)
By Jonathan Reyes (@werdynerdy)
Bashir Mason’s Wagner Seahawks made a statement on game one of the college basketball season back in November: A stunning 67-58 win over the then-No. 18 ranked UConn Huskies, a highlight part of Wagner’s season; even this far in, according to Mason.
“I think that’s what the ceiling was for this group,” Mason reminisced. “That was a really good UConn team. We walked in there and beat them.”
To kick off non-conference play with such a loud bang, conventional wisdom would assume Wagner probably takes advantage of such incredible momentum and steam roll from there. But no one could have expected Romone Saunders, who dropped 15 points in their effort against UConn, to suffer a broken bone in his left foot that required surgery, as reported by the Staten Island Advance/SILive.com’s Cormac Gordon.
Saunders is an explosive offensive weapon for the Seahawks that hasn’t seen game action since game one. And per Gordon’s coverage, it looks likely with a few games left in the 2016-17 season Saunders will be redshirted, which leaves him with two years of eligibility.
“I put that on me,” Mason said of how their record seesawed early on. “To get these guys to not feel relaxed or satisfied with a win or with success, all of those things. The one thing that I can’t give this group is experience, so I just take it as, ‘This is what this group has to go through to get to that next step.’”
Senior guard Michael Carey followed up his coach’s passing point on success.
“People tend to not take success very well,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been trying to help the guys with on our team. We got to be able to handle success. So we got to continue to stay humble, put God first and be monotone.”
SPREADING THEIR WINGS
Success. That’s the keyword of the second half for these Seahawks. Mason said he has broken down this season into several different parts: (1)They were a .500 team in conference to start; (2) If they can be a game better, he’d call it success; (3) If they could win two or more games in a row, he’d call that success too. Why? It’s simple: the team is learning and growing, he said.
For a while there, the ball wasn’t bouncing the Seahawks’ way. As the season progressed, it finally started to help out the team that sits atop Grymes Hill in Staten Island. In a borough battle with the CSI Dolphins, the Seahawks took it to them by winning with a 52-point margin, 94-42. They followed that decisive win with another one, this time by 25, to open up conference play against Central Connecticut, 71-46.
So it looked like the Seahawks found their stride after checking off a few of Mason’s success boxes, but January brought yet another up-and-down cold spell, and it lasted for all of three weeks. Then came the team that was projected by the Northeast Conference coaches to finish second in the league. Mason and his Seahawks went on their longest winning streak of four games, one that started with a back-and-forth 66-64 win over St. Francis Brooklyn.
“It’s a war. It’s a war every game,” Terriers head coach Glenn Braica said of matchups with the Seahawks. “I mean, I love [Mason], but he’s like us, he gets after them and they play hard. We’re good friends, but when we play them, it’s a war. It’s a war every time we play them. They play hard, we play hard. It’s a street fight.”
The Seahawks went on to sweep the season series from Central Connecticut, defeating the Blue Devils 70-60. From there, they flew onward to take on Fairleigh Dickinson in an ESPNU-televised game where the Seahawks won, 68-59, by playing arguably their best basketball of the season against the reigning NEC champion Knights.
“Bashir is a great young coach and they have really hardnosed players,” Knights head coach Greg Herenda said about the rivalry with the Seahawks. “Before we got here, the games weren’t competitive with Wagner. And now we’ve added good players and we play hard, so it’s a natural rivalry. I love the rivalry. We know all their coaches, they know all our plays…it’s kind of like back in the day, the Knicks used to have a rivalry with the Washington Bullets, for old-schoolers out there. It’s just great. We really respect Wagner and what they bring to the table.”
Topping off their win collection, the Seahawks came face-to-face with an up-and-coming extremely talented young team in Saint Francis University. The Red Flash have been a nice surprise in the NEC, going from being seen as the ninth seed to currently being tied for fourth with the Seahawks. Credit of the Red Flash’s quick rise goes to their pride, maturity and leadership, head coach Rob Krimmel said.
In only the second overtime game of the season for the Seahawks, they won, 76-74, in thrilling fashion over a team they are jockeying for position with.
“You know when you play Wagner, it’s going to be a dogfight,” Krimmel said on what it was like watching the No. 1 scoring offense (SFU) and defense (Wagner) clash. “They’re going to make you scrap, claw and earn everything. Bash does a great job with his guys. The Xs and Os are thrown out the window a little bit because loose balls, making sure where their shooters are, maintaining focus and limiting them to one shot due to how they rebound the ball so well. Their guys have a lot of pride; it’s one of the toughest places in the conference to play because their kids play so hard.”
WATCH OUT, THESE 'HAWKS PECK
As noted, with only a handful of games remaining in the season before March Madness begins, the Seahawks are in prime position to either lock down the fourth seed or move up to the two or three spot with FDU and LIU Brooklyn well within reach. Mason and his Seahawks may have a hard time being No. 1, as should every other team in the conference, as Mount St. Mary’s has sole possession of that honor with a commanding 12-2 league record, three games clear of their closest competitors.No matter what happens going forward, Wagner will most definitely feel unfinished once more if they fail to earn the gold ring again. They should be happy with how they’re closing out the year, however. They’re playing to their brand: Attitude. Scrapping, clawing, defense, rebounding, heart, grit, toughness. This team doesn’t take any prisoners.
“I’m proud that in the face of adversity and all of those different challenges we could’ve just fallen off, packed it in and just said, ‘Hey, you know what? This isn’t our year. With what the expectations were, we’re not going to live up to that. We’ll just work for next year,’” Mason said looking back at how this season has unfolded. “But I think that there’s a great amount of pride and belief with this group, which is why I still feel like we’re in the mix and thick of things because these guys still wholeheartedly believe that they’re as good as any team in the league.”
To go back to what Mason considered successes for his team, another one to add to that list, a milestone actually, is Corey Henson scoring his 1,000th career point in that win against FDU on February 4. He was humble about the achievement, as the consummate teammate always is, but he did admit; with the sense of humor only he can provide, “I like that 1K.”
He, like his fellow Seahawks, are well aware of where coaches in the conference projected them to be. But it’s the old coach’s adage and cliché of trusting the process. Henson, for one, likes where they are.“At the start of the year, we were No. 2,” he said. “We’ve had a couple ups and downs, but I feel like we’re hitting our peak now. Teams are starting to see what we can really do. We’re driving in the right direction. You never want to peak too early, so I’m happy that we’re going through it right now. We’ve learned our lessons, burned ourselves a couple of times.”
Before the season, at postgame press conferences and one-on-one interviews, Henson’s other leader on and off the court, Carey, always has stood by the idea that if everyone played as one by this point in the season, they’d be fine. He’s been right, so far.“You can’t really get too excited,” Carey said repeating his season-long mantra of avoiding too much exhilaration, “especially in this conference with all the craziness that’s been going on. There’s constant upsets. One thing with this conference is these kids actually play defense and follow the scouting report. It’s a crazy league.”
“The younger guys are coming along,” Carey continued on about what to expect from the Seahawks down the stretch. “Connor [Ferrell] has defensively been our guy replacing Dwaun [Anderson]; he’s like Dwaun with better offense. Blake [Francis] comes in and does his job. AJ [Sumbry] does his job. Mike Aaman has stepped it up, he’s playing like an all-conference guy, I don’t know too much, I’m not a voter. Everything is coming together. I’m a spiritual person, I just want to thank God. You can’t relax, because when we were in fourth or fifth place, people still saw us as Wagner, so we can never be relaxed.”
Bouncing off of Carey a bit, something the Seahawks have done all season and throughout Mason’s tenure in the big seat was perfectly and succinctly defined by none other than freshman Ferrell as they steel themselves for another run to glory, one that they hope will end in celebration:
“We’ll find a way.”