Hurley, Wagner racking up win after win

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- Two years ago, Tyler Murray was living through a nightmare.

Now he's on the brink of making one of his dreams come true.

After enduring a 5-26 season as a sophomore, the 6-foot-5 senior guard has led Wagner to a 22-4 record, the most wins by any local Division I team so far this season.

Murray scored a game-high 20 points in the Seahawks' 74-67 win over Monmouth on Thursday night.

"It does seem like a long time ago," Murray said after the game, about his brutal experience two years ago. "But I can't forget about those times, or how all those losses felt."

All those losses resulted in the firing of head coach Mike Deane, and the hiring of Danny Hurley, son of Hall of Fame high school coach Bob Hurley. Murray, a Toronto native, said he never considered transferring to another school -- especially after learning who his new coach would be. Two friends and fellow Canadians, Tristan Thompson (now with the Cleveland Cavaliers) and Myck Kabongo (University of Texas), played for Hurley at St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, N.J.

"I had a little insight on how hard it was going to be, the adjustment," Murray said. "But what the guys were really saying, and what I liked of what I was hearing about Coach Hurley, is that he gets you to play your best for him. When players are playing for Coach Hurley, he brings the most out of that player. And I really found that to be appealing."

Murray immediately blossomed under Hurley last year, nearly doubling his scoring average, up to 16.9 points per game. After the season, he was named first-team All-NEC.

The team, picked to finish 10th in the conference in the preseason, made a big jump as well, winning eight more games than it did the season before -- the best improvement by any of last year's 54 new Division I head coaches. But the Seahawks sputtered down the stretch, losing their final five games to finish 13-17 overall, 9-9 in conference play.

This year Wagner is closing the regular season in a very different fashion, having now won seven in a row, and 15 of its past 16 games. That stretch began with one of the most stunning results of this college basketball season -- a 59-54 Wagner win at Pittsburgh two days before Christmas.

"I definitely didn't envision all these wins," Murray said. "[But] I wouldn't say that we've overachieved. We've definitely put in the work since last summer, into the preseason, all throughout this season, and I think that’s just an indication of how hard we have worked, and the hard work is really paying off right now."

Murray's scoring average has actually decreased, to 12.3 points per game, but many of his other stats have gone way up. He's shooting 46.7 percent from the field, and an astounding 51.2 percent from beyond the 3-point line. In fact, he now leads Division I in that category.

He's also playing six less minutes, and has a lot more help. "Sacrifice needs to be made when you have a good team around you," Murray said. "We brought in a couple new players this year, [and] players that were here last year have grown and developed into better players. I think that definitely helps out everybody."

"That's what happens when you get into a good program, good team, and you start to have that type of balance that we have," Hurley said. "[Tyler's] matured as a player. And his minutes are down ... so he's obviously really efficient."

Two other Seahawks average in double figures -- 6-foot-1 sophomore guard Latif Rivers (14.7 ppg) and 6-foot-6 junior forward Jonathon Williams (13.0 ppg). And 10 players average at least 10 minutes per game.

"Hopefully that'll pay dividends for us later in the year, whereas last year we collapsed the last four games," Hurley said. "I think we'll be a fresher team at the end of the year."

Murray called Hurley "instrumental to my success" as a player. "He pushes you every day," Murray said. "I'm sure all the other coaches in Division I and just basketball in general don't let you rest. But Coach has something about him where he really just drives you every minute of practice, even off the court."

Hurley has the entire team playing extremely hard, particularly on defense -- the Seahawks are ranked No. 51 in Division I in field goal defense, forcing teams to shoot just 40.3 percent. And he has them within one win of the school's single-season record for victories, in just his second year at the helm.

"It's a testament to our players, and our players only," Hurley said. "You can't do that in two years without special kids that work tirelessly and unselfishly and competitively. And they're good players. It means a lot to them, what they're doing right now, and what they're representing on the front of their chest."

The Seahwks have already won a ton of games -- but the NCAA Tournament is far from a given. Wagner still trails LIU-Brooklyn (20-7, 14-1 NEC) by a game in the standings, and the Blackbirds already beat the Seahawks twice in the regular season, by five and seven points.

If the two teams meet again, it will likely be in the NEC tournament championship game, with a bid to the Big Dance on the line. And the game will be played at the higher seed's gym.

Murray desperately wants more chance to face his team's nemesis. "We played twice against them, we didn't play up to our ability both times," Murray said. "Regardless of being first, second, wherever us two fall, I think just seeing them again, hopefully in the finals, our team's definitely gonna be prepared."

The future is bright at Wagner, with Hurley in charge, a young talented roster, and former Michigan State commit Dwaun Anderson joining the squad next year. But a big opportunity is in front of them right now -- and for Murray, it's his last one. The senior still can't believe he's in this position, after what transpired two years ago.

"At those times you're not thinking about the best things, you're just thinking, how can you get past what you're going through,” Murray said. "I'm just trying to soak it all up, get better every day, do the right things necessary to peak at the right time, and give it our best shot."