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WEST LONG BRANCH - Monmouth has not had a lot of time to figure out its basketball identity for 2020-21 but in just four games, the Hawks have had the look of a team that can be whatever it needs to be.

With a 97-69 rout of Canisius on Monday afternoon, Monmouth swept the Golden Griffins in dominant fashion by owning the paint on Sunday in game one and shooting the lights out 24 hours later.

Senior Deion Hammond remained a constant in both games with a game-high 21 points in Sunday’s 84-66 win, followed by a team-high 16 in only 17 minutes on Monday. Hammond also added six rebounds, two assists and two steals in Sunday’s win.

Another constant was Monmouth’s defense, which clamped down on the Golden Griffins by holding the visitors under 40 percent shooting in each game with a combined 31 turnovers – 18 of which came in Monday’s blowout.

“We can do it a lot of different ways,” Monmouth coach King Rice said. “I’m trying to get our defense better. Against Hofstra (on opening night) I thought we ran and jumped too much, and we don’t even know how to do it yet. So we’ve gotten away from that and just tried to get after people defensively. That’s what I was most happy about. I know we can score the ball, but we can guard you better than we could in the past and we have had some pretty good defensive teams.”

Hammond did most of his damage in each game during the first half, with 15 of Sunday’s 21 in the first 20 and 14 of his 16 Monday before the break. Hammond led a red-hot shooting first half in game two, burying all four of his first-half three-point attempts as part of a 9-for-12 showing by Monmouth as a team during the first 20 minutes. The Hawks finished 13-for-22 (59 percent) from beyond the arc.

Melik Martin (2) and Deion Hammond (3) celebrate during Monmouth's 97-69 win over Canisius.(Photo Courtesy: Karlee Sell/Monmouth Athletics)

“We are so fortunate to have Deion here,” Rice said. “We have a bunch of great kids but Deion is very special. Deion could score more. For a main guy on the team who has been picked first team all-league, Deion probably takes the fourth or fifth most shots in practice. I’m trying to get my other guys to learn from him because he definitely passes up ones that he should take and sometimes the other guys take ones that they shouldn’t. I’m trying to get them to understand the game better like Deion does. But Deion has plans on playing after college and I think he is setting himself up to be able to do that.”

The three-point barrage was a contrast Monmouth won the battle for points in the paint by a commanding 44-24 margin, which contributed to the Hawks’ 54-percent performance from the field on Sunday despite shooting a more tepid 5-for-19 from three-point range. On the other end, Monmouth held Canisius to 33.8 percent shooting on Sunday and 36 percent on Monday.

“We can beat you a lot of different ways and some nights it will be inside and others, it will be outside,” Rice said. “I like that we have the versatility to do a lot of different things on offense and we’ll start getting our running-and-jumping and our press and our traps better when we have some time to get some good practices in.”

The Killer D’s: Deion, Donovann, Depth and Defense

While a 75-percent three-point shooting performance was the highlight of Monmouth’s 54-30 first half on Monday, the Hawks ignited the dominant half with defense. Monmouth raced out to an 11-0 lead and it took Canisius more than five minutes of game clock to break up the shutout.

“Defense is always our number one focus going into a game,” Hammond said. “That’s the main thing we preach: defense will win the game for us, then we just go do what we do on offense. Every game, it’s defense first and everything else will handle itself.”

When the Golden Griffins pulled within 28-21 eight minutes before halftime, Monmouth answered with an 18-2 run. Hammond helped ignite the surge with a steal on the defensive end that he carried up court before pulling up for three and a 33-21 lead. Freshman Myles Ruth, picked the pocket of Canisius leading scorer Majesty Brandon at midcourt and coasted in for a layup to extend the lead to 14. Ruth finished Sunday’s game with seven points and four assists.

Monmouth freshman Myles Ruth. (Photo Courtesy: Karlee Sell/Monmouth Athletics)

Redshirt sophomore Donovann Toatley matched Hammond – his former high-school teammate at Riverdale Baptist in Upper Marlboro, Md. – with 16 points as part of a wave of bench scoring that has been commonplace for the Hawks through five games. Toatley – a Chattanooga transfer – has now reached double-figure scoring in three of his four games since debuting with Monmouth on Dec. 18 vs. St. Peter’s.

“Everybody knows I can score, so we have to find ways of doing things a certain way within the pace of the game,” Toatley said. “It’s just one of those things where I’m getting used to everybody and just getting used to being back on the floor.”

“Today, I wanted Don to go and I have been telling him to go, because I’ve got to get him to the place where he understands that he can be dynamic within what we do,” Rice said. “When you’re a kid who can score the ball like him, you want to show everybody and I understand that.”

Eleven Monmouth players scored at least two points Sunday and Monmouth made it a clean dozen on Monday, with freshman Jack Holmstrom getting into the act with a three-pointer in game two.

Monmouth had two other players join Hammond and Toatley in double-figures Monday and both came off the bench. Senior Marcus McClary scored all 11 of his points in the first half on 5-for-5 shooting before sitting the entire second half with a foot injury, according to Rice.

Monmouth senior Marcus McClary. (Photo Courtesy: Karlee Sell/Monmouth Athletics)

Freshman Klemen Vuga also hit double-figures off the bench with a career-high 10 points.

“There are so many options for us and when we get to play together, we’re a very dangerous team,” Rice said.

Game One Highlights

While Hammond reached 21 points on Sunday, just one other player – junior Nikkei Rutty – joined him in double-figure scoring during the game one win. Rutty finished that game with 10 points and four rebounds, marking his best game in the early going after making an unexpectedly quick recovering from a torn Achilles tendon suffered last season.

“I love that he is already back,” Rice said. “I didn’t think he would be back until January and that’s a credit to him, that’s a credit to our training staff, and that’s a credit to our strength coaches because they got this young man back very early. And not just back. He is back and playing better than he’s ever been, so we’re super-excited about his growth in our program.”

Rutty led a frontcourt effort on Sunday that saw contributions across the board. Freshman Myles Foster scored eight points on 4-for-5 shooting, versatile senior McClary pitched in eight points and a team-high seven rebounds off the bench, and Melik Martin and Gob Gabriel each contributed seven points.

“I think everybody this year has stepped up their game, especially the freshmen that we have,” Rutty said. “They’re very talented. They make me work in practice and I push them and teach them some of the things they need to know. This year, everybody is just clicking and everybody wants the same goal and I’m really excited about what’s happening this year.”

Monmouth starters Melik Martin (left), Samuel Chaput (25), Nikkei Rutty (back), Deion Hammond (3) and George Papar. (Photo Courtesy: Karlee Sell/Monmouth Athletics)

Senior George Papas went for seven points in game one and eight in game two, while Martin finished Sunday with nine points, five rebounds and two blocks.

The only regular not to score in either win was 6-foot-9 sophomore Jarvis Vaughan, who was ejected for committing a flagrant-two foul with a retaliatory elbow early in the first half of game one and battled foul trouble during game 2. Vaughan also took an elbow to the chin on Monday and was initially called for a foul on the play before a replay review overturned the call.

“I’m glad nothing really escalated and when you do things that you’re not supposed to do – and I’m a prime example because sometimes I can’t keep my mouth shut and I get kicked out of games – you cannot do that,” Rice said. “It’s not right for me, it’s not right for Jarvis, but we put our arms around Jarvis because this is a learning situation for him. He hasn’t played a lot of college basketball yet, so he’ll learn.”

Sunday’s game got off to a rough start from Monmouth’s perspective, with turnovers and poor shooting contributing to a 14-10 start for Canisius over the first nine-plus minutes.

Monmouth, however, answered with 10 straight points to go up, 20-14, and after Canisius pulled within 25-23, Monmouth closed the first half on a 19-7 run. Hammond scored four points during his first stint of the game, then returned from the bench with 8:11 to go in the half and scored 11 more before the halftime horn. Hammond finished shooting 8-for-12 from the field and added five rebounds and a pair of assists, giving him 37 points on a cool 14-for-22 from the field in the two-game sweep.

Canisius got as close as nine points in the second half but the Hawks put the game away with a 14-3 run that made it 66-46 at the eight-minute mark of the second half.

“We talked about it in one of the timeout breaks,” Hammond said of his team’s lackluster start on Sunday. “We started off a little slow. I started off with a couple of turnovers and we weren’t really getting as many stops as we needed to on defense. We just came together as a team, talked it out, and mainly it was us just sticking together.”

Still Singing the Back-to-Back Blues

On Monday, Monmouth picked up right where it left off on Sunday with the 11-0 run to open the game and the backbreaking 18-2 run that made Canisius look forward to getting on a bus away from the Jersey Shore as quickly as possible.

The back-to-back blowouts are just about the worst-case scenario for a team having to travel on the road right after Christmas and play on consecutive days against a team that employs a 13-man rotation – all, of course, during a pandemic.

“Playing back-to-back is really hard,” Rice said. “It’s hard mentally and it’s hard physically. I was worn out after one game. I watched tape all night and then you have to come back in the morning to try to get these kids ready to play – it just wears on you. I feel bad for the Canisius kids that they have to get on a bus and ride all the way home to get ready for another back-to-back.”

Rice has not been shy about his thoughts regarding the challenges facing the MAAC players and coaches while playing a schedule that builds in games on consecutive nights against the same opponent and a scenario that seems difficult to Rice and his coaching brethren within the conference has been even tougher in reality.

“I understand why we had to do this, but I hope everyone is understanding around the country: the NBA plays back-to-backs once in a while; you do not play them every week because it is very taxing and that’s guys that make millions of dollars,” Rice said. “It’s wearing on these kids and I’m just hopeful we’re doing the right thing with the back-to-backs. I’m not sure if we can change it now but the coaches have talked about it and it’s a lot harder than we thought.”

Ultimately, Monmouth’s players hope the challenge prepares them for meaningful games in March and if the Hawks – and the rest of the MAAC and college basketball – are able to make it that far, they feel they will be as battle-ready as they can be.

“They are definitely kind of tedious and tiring at times throughout the course of a game because you’re like, ‘Dang, we just played them yesterday,’” Toatley said of playing the back-to-backs against the same opponent. “It definitely gets a little draining mentally, but that’s what separates the good teams from the great teams and the ones that are able to make it far run into the Dance.”