Hurley's histrionics pump up Wagner

Dan Hurley has pumped new life into the Wagner men's basketball program in his first year. Dave Saffran/Wagner

NEW YORK -- If there was a poll ranking the most animated coaches in college basketball, Dan Hurley would almost certainly be in the Top 25.

When he screams out plays at the top of his lungs, you feel for his vocal cords. When he stomps his feet for emphasis, you feel for his shoes. When he pumps his fists and runs out on the court to congratulate his players, you almost want to play for him. When he jaws constantly with the referees, you sometimes want to cringe for him.

Hurley is almost as entertaining to watch as his Wagner team. On Thursday night, they came within a whisker of beating Long Island U. -- 21-5 overall, in first place in the Northeast Conference at 13-2 -- before falling in overtime, 83-79, in Staten Island.

A 3-pointer by Wagner junior guard Chris Martin with 3.3 seconds left tied the game at 71, and sent it to OT. But the Seahawks couldn't hold on after taking a three-point lead early in the extra period.

"It's a tough pill to swallow today, because I felt like we played really well," Hurley said.

It was a total team effort by Wagner in this one -- all five starters scored in double figures, and the Seahawks registered 25 assists on their 32 field goals, an outstanding percentage.

But they were ultimately undone at the foul line. LIU shot 43 free throws, making 31 of them. Wagner, on the other hand, had just 11 attempts from the charity stripe, making seven.

"I'm not into moral victories. But obviously I'm proud of the way the kids played," Hurley said. "I thought they overcame a lot. ... To get outshot 43-11 at the foul line, it's hard to overcome."

A season ago, Wagner finished 5-26, resulting in the dismissal of head coach Mike Deane. Hurley, the younger son of Basketball Hall of Famer Bob Hurley Sr., who had built St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, N.J., into a national powerhouse, was hired to replace him -- with his older brother Bobby, the former Duke legend, as his assistant. (Click here to read ESPNNewYork.com's profile of the Hurley brothers from earlier this season.)

The Seahawks were still predicted to finish 10th in their conference at the beginning of the season. But, despite the loss to LIU, Wagner is a pleasant surprise at 13-13 overall, and 9-6 in conference play -- good for a tie for fourth place.

"Our guys have been great," Hurley said. "These kids've got a lot of fight in 'em. They've been that way the whole year. They deserve a lot of credit, coming from where they came last year.

"We've asked a lot of 'em. We've asked a lot of them to change a lot of things about themselves, and they've done it."

Hurley's top two players are 6-foot-5 junior guard Tyler Murray (16.7 points per game) and 6-foot-1 freshman guard Latif Rivers (14.6 ppg), both of whom can shoot the ball from the perimeter and get to the rim as well. Overall, Hurley starts two juniors and three freshmen, meaning the future of the program looks bright.

LIU coach Jim Ferry, whose team clobbered Wagner at home back on Jan. 15, 84-54, sounded impressed after this go-round.

"These guys play so many freshmen so many minutes -- well, they're not freshmen anymore," Ferry said. And they can all play. And they're athletic, and they can score.

"I think these guys have improved tremendously, and I think we saw that tonight, no question. I thought they just played so hard tonight."

"It's obviously great for our future," Hurley said. "But we obviously want to win now, because none of our coaches are real patient."

You can't blame Hurley for being a little impatient. He's been on the losing end 13 times already this season. Compare that to his last gig at St. Benedict's, where he only lost 21 games over nine seasons, while racking up a whopping 223 wins.

Maybe that's why he looks like he's coaching as if his very life depended on it.

Hurley and his players' one and only goal at the beginning of this season was to finish in the top eight in the NEC, and thereby qualify for the conference tournament.

They've done far better than that. The Seahawks are currently battling for a top-four seed, meaning they would at least play their quarterfinal game at home. And they just proved they can more than hang with the best team in the conference.

"[LIU] are solid, but I think we can get them," Murray said. "And they know that, too. I'm sure about that. I want to play them again, definitely."

Hurley was not within earshot when his star guard made that comment.

But he definitely would have pumped his fist if he had heard it.