By Jim Hintelmann
WEST LONG BRANCH – After three difficult weeks of playing road games, in which it lost eight of nine, Monmouth University finally had its first home game of the season against Fordham Saturday, and the Hawks celebrated it in the grand style.
Running its newly installed up tempo offense to near perfection, the Hawks started fast and never let up in rolling to an easy 80-65 romp over the outclassed Rams.
“The first time people here met me, I told them that we were going to be aggressive and be right in your face,” said first year coach King Rice. “We started off slow, but now our kids are starting to get the feel for what we want.
“They’ve been working extremely hard,” he said. “What I asked them to go from playing zone all the time (which it did in recent years) to pressure man-to-man. That is a tough thing to do.
“I also asked them to go from a Princeton style offense to a very fast kind of team,” he added. “Since the early part of the season, we’ve been preparing for this part of the season. Our kids are going to continue to get better and this is how we are going to play.”
Monmouth wasted little time and came out running from the start, scoring the first 12 points of the game capped by three-pointers from Dion Nesmith and Jesse Steele, who led Monmouth with 18 points on 7 of 11 shooting and six assists.
“We played great defense,” said Steele. “We put pressure on their point guard and messed up their whole offense. The energy in this building was amazing and that pumped us up.”
The closest Fordham got after the early Monmouth run was 16-7 on two foul shots by Marvin Dominque, but the Hawks opened it up again to 31-14, on a layup by Steele.
“Our kids have been incredible,” said Rice. “I told them in the huddle that I’m going too crazy on you guys right now but to just relax. They know that I’m intense. I come after them the full 40 minutes. I tell them that this is not my son’s 10-year-old league but college basketball.”
Fordham scored seven of the next nine points to close the gap to 33-23, and had a chance to get closer, but it failed on three straight trips down the court, missing six in a row, including four lay ups.
Monmouth’s Mike Myers Keitt then drilled a trey with 50 seconds left in the half to put the Hawks up 36-23. The closest the Rams got in the second half was 44-32. Monmouth’s biggest lead was 64-41 on Steele’s three-pointer.
Rice also singled out freshman guard Austin Tillotson, who scored 12 points, including making 4 of 5 field goals. In his last five games, he has shot 7 of 12 from the floor.
“It’s been like a big transition from high school with the speed, size and everything,” said Tillotson. “We played some tough schools earlier. Now we are playing teams that we can really compete with.”
Monmouth’s earlier opponents included Villanova, Vanderbilt, Virginia Tech, George Mason and Rutgers, It also has a game with nationally ranked North Carolina Jan. 1.