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WEST LONG BRANCH - With three shutdowns and three quarantines before they played their first game, the players on the Monmouth University Men’s Basketball team got used to being around each other. With no opponents to play while the majority of the college basketball landscape playing real games, the Hawks faced off against the only opponent they could face: themselves.

After 10 days of intra-squads since reconvening following a third program shutdown, Monmouth finally faced a real adversary Tuesday. While a 96-88 loss to preseason CAA favorite Hofstra at OceanFirst Bank Center was not the dream start to the season, any start was a welcome one for the Hawks players.

“I was just sitting on the scorer’s table during warm-up looking around before the game,” senior guard George Papas said. “I was so happy to finally be back on this court for an actual game.”

Monmouth senior guard George Papas. Photo Courtesy: MonmouthHawks.com (Karlee Sell).

Papas led Monmouth with a game-high 32 points thanks to a 9-for-14 performance from beyond the three-point line that tied a 30-year school record.

Senior and Preseason All-MAAC guard Deion Hammond poured in 24, including a red-hot start that saw him score 16 points in the first eight minutes. Hammond, however, went 17:30 of game clock before hitting his next shot.

“I probably didn’t do a good job of staying with Deion as the hot hand,” Monmouth coach King Rice said. “I like to get guys in the game early and get them going and by taking him out, I might have thrown him out of his rhythm a little bit.”

“I didn’t have a problem because I know how to get my shot going and I like to see other guys get in the game and contribute,” Hammond said.

Monmouth played without three likely regulars in red-shirt sophomore guard Donovann Toatley and true sophomore forwards Jarvis Vaughan and Gob Gabriel – whom Rice said violated quarantine rules and will be available for Friday’s conference opener vs. St. Peter’s in West Long Branch.

Vaughan (6-foot-9) and Gabriel (6-7) represent two of Monmouth’s five tallest players and despite their absence, the Hawks quieted Hofstra big man Isaac Kante – averaging a double-double heading into the game – for the majority of the game before the junior finished up with seven points and nine rebounds. Senior Melik Martin led the frontcourt with 16 points and eight rebounds while starting senior guard Marcus McClary played out of position for parts of the game while Monmouth worked with a thin frontcourt.

While the Hawks bottled up Hofstra’s top inside presence, the Pride’s senior backcourt duo of Jaley Ray (29 points) and Tareq Coburn (28) combined for 59 points while proving too much for Monmouth to stop.

Ray entered the game shooting 29 percent from three-point range over Hofstra’s first four games but hit 4-of-6 on Tuesday. Both Hofstra guards combined to shoot 21-for-23 from the free-throw line, with Ray 7-for-7, Coburn 14-for-16 and the Pride shooting 29-for-32 (90.6 percent) for the game.

While Hofstra was hot from the foul line, the Hawks were sharp from beyond the arc, finishing 15-for-30 (50 percent) against a Pride team that entered the game with the best three-point-percentage defense in the CAA.

Monmouth will open it’s MAAC slate Friday night with the first of two games against St. Peter’s (4-2) on back-to-back nights at OceanFirst Bank Center.

N.J. Ray

Jalen Ray entered Tuesday’s game at Monmouth in a three-game shooting slump, during which the Pride senior averaged 10.3 points. Ray got just what he needed to end the slump: a trip to New Jersey.

Ray opened the season with a team-high 22 points in a 74-60 loss to Rutgers – the No. 19 team in the country – at the RAC on Nov. 29 and in his team’s second trip to the Garden State resulted in Ray’s career-high 29 points.

Unfortunately for Ray, Hofstra is finished playing regular-season games in New Jersey but the Hampton, Va. native will have plenty of time to get comfortable with the rest of the East Coast heading into 2021.

Rutgers Reality Check?

The RAC was Rutgers’ not-so-secret weapon in 2019-20, when the Scarlet Knights enjoyed their best season the late 1970’s behind an 18-1 record on their home floor. With no fans to pack the cozy arena and work the building dubbed the "Trapezoid of Terror" into a frenzy, it is not likely to be the same advantage but Rutgers will try to prove otherwise Sunday against its first Top-25 opponent of the season.

No. 13 Illinois – fresh off a 92-65 drubbing of Minnesota on Tuesday – is set for a trip to Piscataway to face a Rutgers team that continues to climb in the rankings, as well as onto the national stage. If Monday’s convincing 74-60 road win over Maryland was not enough to validate the credentials of a veteran Rutgers squad, the coming stretch of games – starting with the Fighting Illini on Sunday.

Five of Rutgers’s next six games are against teams currently ranked in the AP Top 25 – Illinois, at No. 20 Ohio State, home against unranked Purdue and No. 3 Iowa, at No. 4 Michigan State and back home for Ohio State on Jan. 9.

NBA Pedigree

For the son of an NBA Player who was a part of two different dynasties in the 1990’s and 2000’s, Ron Harper Jr. has flown under the radar during his young basketball life.

The radar is finally catching on.

Harper is off to a red-hot start to his junior season (23.2 points, 60-percent shooting, 7.0 rebounds and 2.8 assists in five games) and to call him one of the Big Ten’s top players in the early going might be selling him short. According to KenPom, and as illustrated by NJ Advanced Media’s Brian Fonseca, Harper has made a case as one of the best players in the country thus far.

As a high-school player at Don Bosco Prep in Bergen County, Harper led the Ironmen to the 2017 NJSIAA Tournament of Champions final as a junior, where his team lost to a loaded Patrick School team led by recent Charlotte Hornets draft pick Nick Richards. Harper and the Ironmen made it back to the final the next year as well, losing to Minnesota Timberwolves center Naz Reid and Roselle Catholic in the final. Despite bringing Don Bosco to back-to-back T of C finals, Harper was lightly-recruited before committing to Rutgers as a three-star recruit ranked well outside the top-100 by the various recruiting sites.

While Harper was a contributor from day one with the Scarlet Knights, he has reached another level thanks to a shooting stroke that has gone from streaky to pinpoint. After shooting 28 percent and 35 percent from three-point range in his freshman and sophomore seasons, Harper is off to a 16-for-32 (50 percent) start from beyond the arc after drilling 5-for-8 in each of the last two wins over Syracuse and Maryland.

Now, the lightly-recruited Harper is starting to convince many around the country that he can follow in the footsteps of his father, Ron Sr., and play in the NBA.

The Shore’s Finest

Shavar Reynolds’s days as a starting point guard in the Big East could be numbered but it won’t be because he didn’t make the most of his audition.

In his team’s first seven games, the Seton Hall senior and Manchester High School graduate is averaging 9.0 points, 5.6 assists, 2.0 steals, shooting 49 percent from the field, 53 percent from three-point range an running an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.44.

Seton Hall guard and Manchester alum Shavar Reynolds. (Photo courtesy of SHUPirates.com)

Reynolds began his career with the Pirates as a walk-on, worked his way to a scholarship spot, served as a role player for the past two seasons, and grabbed the starting job with Harvard transfer and former Patrick School star Bryce Aiken out with an injury.

After finishing his high-school career at Manchester, Reynolds drew little interest from college programs and after a year of prep school, he opted to play as a Division I walk-on rather than as a Division III rotation piece. The result has been the kind of underdog story that makes college basketball so appealing beyond the headline players and programs.