College Basketball – Monmouth Bounces Back for Milestone Weekend vs. Marist
WEST LONG BRANCH - To snap his team out of two-game rut – which not-so-coincidentally came against MAAC preseason favorite Siena – Monmouth head coach King Rice sat his players down for a history class.
Two games later and the Hawks’ immediate future is looking bright again after the trip down memory lane.
Rice popped in the proverbial tape of two noteworthy Monmouth wins from November of 2015 during the week of practice preparing for a home double-header vs. Marist, then prepared his team to carve out a special place in the history of the program with a landmark win in the history of Monmouth Men’s Basketball.
After getting swept out of Albany by Siena last Sunday and Monday, Monmouth responded with two dominant performances against Marist over the weekend, the second of which secured the Hawks their 1,000th win in program history.
“I didn’t understand how great of a place I was getting invited to come to,” Rice said of his knowledge of Monmouth when he was interviewing for the coaching vacancy. “I knew about the history but I didn’t know how great it was here. Now I have been the coach for ten years and I think on a day like this, when the school hits win number 1,000, you have to reflect on all the people who played a role in getting Monmouth to this historic win.”
“I’m glad that our team was the one to get the thousandth win, but it’s really a credit to all the guys that came before us and put numbers to that stat,” Hammond said. “I’m glad we could contribute to it.”
Before making history this weekend, Rice showed his 2020-21 team two of the team’s biggest wins in its recent history – certainly since Rice took over as head coach 10 seasons ago. After thrashing Marist, 80-64 on Saturday, Rice said he sat his players down during the week and showed them the film of wins over UCLA and Notre Dame – which came within two weeks of one another during the first month of Monmouth’s 28-win 2015-16 season.
“We saw a team that was together,” Monmouth senior Deion Hammond said. “They all had one common goal. You could see it just watching it and it was beautiful to watch – how they just moved the ball, everybody was working together on defense and everybody had the next guy.”
“We run a lot of the similar stuff that we ran back then because I feel like I have a lot of guys that can do a lot of things,” Rice said. “I think the kids watched those guys – no one every complained when they got taken out of the game. Nobody yelled at anybody for taking a bad shot. When a turnover happened or a guy went down, everybody ran over to take care of their teammate and their brother. Everyone saw that and I think it shocked them a little.
“The next day, we watched the Notre Dame game before practice. Just to show them that it wasn’t a fluke. It was a bunch of guys that believed in each other and it didn’t matter who was the best player or who got the most shots, as long as Monmouth won.”
Back at the OceanFirst Bank Center after the team’s first road trip of the season, Monmouth looked happy to be home in racing out to an early lead on Saturday and putting the game away with another surge early in the second half.
One day later, the Hawks again jumped out to an early lead en route to a 72-62 win. Monmouth closed the first half with eight straight points to take a 39-24 lead at the break and stretched it out to as large as 20.
“I think our guys’ attention to detail is up right now,” Rice said. “We have a lot of talent. It still needs some tinkering so it can go together the way we would all like it to, but I love this group. They’re challenging some days, but these kids are dealing with a pandemic.”
Hammond again led Monmouth in scoring in both afternoon tilts, pouring in 21 points in each of the two wins. Hammond also grabbed nine rebounds in game two and moved into seventh place on Monmouth’s all-time scoring list, passing 2005 graduate Blake Hamilton and now sitting at 1,449 for his career.
Hammond was coming off a two-game performance vs. Siena in which he ran into some struggles in each game. He scored 20 in a one-point loss on Jan. 3 but shot just 4-for-11 from the free-throw line, then scored 12 points on 3-for-11 shooting in Monday’s 14-point defeat.
“It always hurts to lose, especially two in a row, but you can’t sit there and dwell on it too long,” Hammond said. “They’re a good team, so we just had to take the hit and the next day, get back in the gym and keep working.”
Junior Melik Martin was the second-leading scorer in both wins over Marist scoring 12 points on 6-for-7 shooting with six rebounds on Saturday and posting 16 points and five rebounds on Sunday. Martin started the game as the center in Monmouth’s new-look, small-ball starting lineup that Rice tried out to rousing success – at least in the first two test runs.
“My role doesn’t have to change much,” Martin said. “Coach knows I can play multiple positions, so I’m just trying to be the best fit for the team. That’s really been my learning curve – just making sure I’m going out there doing the right thing and taking the right shots and trying to get my shooters off. Make sure they get hot.”
Freshman Myles Ruth was the noteworthy addition to the lineup, starting in place of junior Samuel Chaput. Ruth started the season-opener vs. Hofstra when the Hawks were missing three players, came off the bench for the next six games, then started the two this weekend. Ruth scored eight points to go with three steals on Saturday and dished out a game-high five assists along with three more steals on Sunday.
“There wasn’t a verbal message, but by (Rice) starting me, it shows I have been putting the work in,” Ruth said. “It shows I am actually trying to do what he says.”
“Defensively, he can steal anybody’s ball if they make a mistake,” Rice said of Ruth. “So he puts a different level of pressure on the guy bringing the ball up. He’s long – I have never seen a kid be able to reach and scrape the ground as easily as he can when he’s stretching. He’s just a tough Jersey kid.”
The other addition to the starting lineup was senior Marcus McClary, who replaced junior center Nikkei Rutty and responded with nine points, 10 rebounds and four assists in Saturday’s win. At 6-foot-3, McClary effectively played the four in the lineup, with Ruth and Papas at the guards, Hammond as the wing and Martin at the five to open both games.
“We can really start any guys, to be honest,” Hammond said. “We have so much depth on this team. It might be the most depth since I have been here, so it’s just exciting to see everybody on the team getting into their role and just putting everything together.”
Redshirt-sophomore Donovann Toatley pitched in 13 points off the bench on Sunday after scoring eight in the same role on Saturday.
Monmouth got back to knocking down the three-point shot over the weekend, going a combined 18-for-42 (42.8 percent) while Marist struggled mightily, particularly on Sunday. The Red Foxes missed their first 17 three-point attempts in the game and were 1-for-25 before hitting their final two attempts to close out the game at 3-for-27. Marist shot a much more respectable 9-for-27 on Saturday.
“That plays a crucial part in the game,” Hammond said of Marist’s shooting woes. “We can play hard defense and make them miss shots, but when they are missing the open ones, that just gives us a huge boost in confidence. It makes us go even harder to get the rebound and run, then get a stop the next time down.”
Papas hit his first three three-point attempts on Sunday and led Monmouth with nine points at halftime. The Hawks shot 7-for-11 from beyond the arc in the first half.
The upcoming two-game set vs. Quinnipiac on Friday and Saturday will be the second-to-last scheduled home double-header of the season for Monmouth. The Hawks are set to close the season with five of their final six MAAC double-headers on the road.
To keep progressing within the MAAC, Rice’s team will try to keep that link with teams from Monmouth’s history even as these Hawks pursue their own.
“It’s always good to know that coach has that type of standard set for us,” Hammond said. “He said that we could probably be better than that team, so it’s just that we have to take that and run with it. We have to believe in what we are trying to get done.”