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One of the most common, if illogical, things we do here in sportswriting is bestow upon the shoulders of coaches and players the history of their teams and the rivalries in which they participate. Mets first baseman Pete Alonso was five years old when Roger Clemens first beaned and then chucked a broken bat at Mike Piazza. Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts was 14 years away from being born when Bucky Dent became Bucky bleeping Dent.
This concept is particularly flawed in the inherently transient nature of college athletics, where players come and go on a yearly basis and turnover is almost as common for coaches. Even players who have seemingly been around forever like Desure Buie and Nathan Knight were still in high school in the spring of 2015. Freshmen such as Caleb Burgess or Rainers Hermanovskis were in eighth grade. Dane Fischer was an assistant coach at Bucknell.
So it’s crazy to expect Fischer to know and understand the history between William Mary and Hofstra, who oppose each other on Long Island tonight, and to agree with the expectation that something insane is likely to happen, because that’s what happens when William & Mary plays Hofstra.
“Yeah, I’ve been aware of it,” Fischer said with a laugh Wednesday night. “I’m aware as a fan. As a coach, I’m obviously at different places, but you just kind of would always see that these two teams got together and they were great games.”
There are few surer things in the CAA than that. Ten of the last 14 games between the two schools have been decided by six points or fewer, including the last four. Included in that stretch are two of the most riveting CAA Tournament games of the 2010s — William & Mary’s 92-91 double overtime win in the 2015 semifinals and Hofstra’s 70-67 victory in the 2016 semifinals exactly 365 days later.
“The 3-pointer by Daniel Dixon — I didn’t remember that or hadn’t heard about it, but I certainly am aware of it now,” Fischer said with a laugh. “There’s a picture in my office of him in mid-jump shot.”
Last season, Hofstra swept William & Mary in eventful fashion by outlasting the Tribe, 93-90, in triple overtime in Williamsburg on Jan. 10 before earning a 93-87 victory on Long Island on Feb. 9.
Both games featured classic duels between Knight and Hofstra star Justin Wright-Foreman. Knight scored a combined 70 points and forced the third overtime at home with a 3-pointer. A month later, Wright-Foreman tied a school record by scoring 48 points, including 37 in the second half.
“Now that I’m here, you pay a little more attention to it and learn more about the games that they had in the tournament,” Fischer said. “Both games last year were just offensive explosions for both teams. Obviously a couple of great individual performances from Nathan Knight and Justin Wright-Foreman.”
Even the handful of recent lopsided games were notable. On Jan. 22, 2014, Hofstra rode a 17-0 second half run to its most impressive win of Joe Mihalich’s first season, a 77-60 victory over a William & Mary squad that would reach the CAA championship game. The Pride absorbed its most one-sided loss of the Mihalich era on Jan. 28, 2015, when the Tribe cruised to a 100-79 win.
Hofstra got a bit of revenge in a 91-63 win on Jan. 24, 2016, but the victory was overshadowed by the season-ending knee injury suffered by sixth man Malik Nichols, whose absence down the stretch likely cost the Pride its chance to win the CAA title.
On Feb. 23, 2017, the Pride finished the game on a 16-0 run to turn another closer game into a 96-82 victory.
As close as the games have been between the Pride and Tribe, the most delicious part of the rivalry — and the element that’s lifted it to classic status — was the relationship, or lack thereof, between Mihalich and former William & Mary head coach Tony Shaver.
Nobody knows why they didn’t like each other, or how they came to dislike each other. But let’s just say the frostiest handshakes and staredowns over the last 20 years at Hofstra’s Mack Sports Complex weren’t those exchanged between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during their presidential debate on Sept. 26, 2016.
The two coaches charged towards one another early in the CAA semifinals Mar. 6, 2016 after the Tribe’s Terry Tarpey delivered a hard foul to the Pride’s Rokas Gustys. Mihalich was furious when Daniel Dixon, who beat Hofstra with his 3-pointer just before the double overtime buzzer in the 2015 CAA semifinals, punctuated his buzzer-beating 3-pointer in a 95-93 win on Jan. 2, 2017 by miming a gunslinger blowing on his guns and holstering his weapons. Shaver was similarly mad last season when Wright-Foreman, seeking to become the first player in school history to score 50 points in a single game, drove for and missed an open layup just before the buzzer.
“I’m aware of it,” Fischer said with another laugh when the topic of the Mihalich-Shaver relationship came up.
The handshakes will be far friendlier tonight. In an amusing twist, Mihalich and Fischer have been friends for more than 15 years, ever since Mihalich offered Fischer, a recent college graduate, an opportunity to coach at his summer camp in Niagara when the two met each other at the Final Four in 2004. (Fischer was introduced to Mihalich by his friend and fellow Ithaca College graduate, Drexel head coach Zach Spiker)
“Mihalich said ‘If you ever want to come out and work at our camp, we’d love to have you,’” Fischer said. “He was awesome and I really enjoyed it. I’ve been in touch with him ever since.”
Tonight’s less combative gathering resumes a rivalry that seemed destined for another high-stakes clash in the semifinals of last March’s CAA Tournament. But fourth-seeded William & Mary squandered a 14-point halftime lead in the quarterfinals and fell to Delaware, 85-79. That set into motion a chain of events that resulted in the firing of Shaver and the transfers of Chase Audige, Matt Milon, L.J. Owens and Justin Pierce from a team that was positioned to enter this season as the favorite to win the league and finally earn the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth.
Fortunately for the Tribe, the 6-foot-10 Knight stayed for his senior season and was joined by 7-footer Andy Van Vliet, who sat out last season as a transfer from Wisconsin. The two have formed a 1-2 punch the CAA has rarely if ever seen and are averaging 35.2 points and 19.2 rebounds per game for a team that’s averaging 73.5 points and 37.4 rebounds per game.
Against Elon in the CAA opener Monday night, the two combined for 43 points in a 74-73 victory. Knight went into takeover mode in the second half, when he scored 17 points without missing a shot (5-for-5 from the field and 6-for-6 from the free throw line). At one point, Knight scored 13 consecutive points for the Tribe.
Tonight’s game offers a fascinating contrast in styles. Hofstra is going to struggle to find an answer for Knight and Van Vliet, while the Tribe doesn’t have the guard play featured by the Pride. KenPom.com is projecting a seven-point win for Hofstra, but anyone who knows anything about this rivalry knows it’s probably going to be a lot closer than that.
“I’m a little bit in tune to it,” Fischer said. “Certainly looking forward to being a part of it.”