HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — What a difference a year can make. Last season, the Delaware Blue Hens captured their first Colonial Athletic Association regular season and conference tournament titles, while the Hofstra Pride finished in eighth place in the then nine-team CAA, en route to a third straight season of 10 or fewer wins.
Delaware also defeated Hofstra three times last year and ended the Pride’s season in the CAA quarterfinals, while beating its longtime rival from the CAA and before that, the America East Conference, for an eighth consecutive time.
But after Delaware (1-12, 0-2 CAA) lost much of its core from a year ago, as Hofstra (11-4, 2-0 CAA) built a new and improved core of its own, the Blue Hens have suddenly become the conference bottom feeder while the Pride is aiming to be in March where Blue Hens were last year.
Continuing that new trend, Hofstra scored 15 straight first-half points to erase an early Delaware edge and lead for good, while getting its fourth straight win, 71-58, at the Mack Sports Complex on Monday night.
“It’s a great rivalry,” winning said head coach Joe Mihalich, who is in his second year at Hofstra after spending 15 years in the same role at Niagara. “It goes back to when Speedy Claxton was playing.”
Mihalich’s comments came three days after the 15-year anniversary of the day the Mack (then called Hofstra Arena) opened, with Claxton, who is now Mihalich’s assistant coach, leading Hofstra to a blowout win in the building’s first event. Claxton, as of the greatest players in program history, later guided Hofstra to consecutive America East tournament championship wins over Delaware, and NCAA tournament appearances, in 2000 and 2001.
This time, the Pride’s four main contributors — all newcomers since last season — each scored in double figures, to account for 55 Hofstra points and 32 of their team’s 48 rebounds as the Blue Hens wilted in the second half.
Junior guard Juna’ya Green scored 13 of his team-high 16 points in the second half after missing nine of 10 field goal attempts in the opening half. Green’s former teammate at Niagara and old friend from Philadelphia, junior guard Ameen Tanksley, added 15 points and nine rebounds.
Although the Pride, which entered the game as the CAA’s leading 3-point shooting team, uncharacteristically struggled overall (going 5-for-23) from behind the arc, sophomore guard Brian Bernardi made half of his six 3-point tries to finish with 13 points.
Meanwhile, Lithuanian freshman forward Rokas Gustys posted the first double-double of his college career, posting 11 points and game-highs of 16 rebounds and five blocks, in just 20 minutes off the bench, during his second game since missing seven straight contests due to injury.
“It feels good, but we won the game, so that’s the most important thing,” Gustys modestly said afterwards.
Hoping it will help them on the perimeter moving forward, sharpshooters Tanksley and Green are especially thankful to have Gustys’ inside presence return to the lineup.
“He’s a big body,” Tanksley said. “He takes up a lot of space and he’s a great passer when he catches it in the post. So you can cut and he’ll find you just like Juan’ya can find you. So it’s real good to have him.”
Bernardi added, “[Gustys’ play] defensively, and [his] rebounding are the two biggest things I’ve seen so far.”
He then teased Gustys, as the two close teammates chuckled. “His offense will come,” Bernardi said. “He’s a little rusty, but he’ll be alright.”
Despite starting the night with a CAA-leading 80.4 points per game, the Pride was out of sync offensively in the early going, and started just 2-for-13 from the field.
Delaware missed its first four shots before a 3-pointer by senior guard Kyle Anderson (team-high 16 points), a main holdover from the Blue Hens’ run last year, accounted for the first of eight straight Delaware points during a 14-4 spurt that gave the visitors a 15-8 lead.
Turning up its defensive intensity, Hofstra scored the next 15 points as Delaware missed nine straight shots and committed four turnovers over a span of 6:36.
After missing its first nine treys, Bernardi ended the Pride’s drought with a 3-pointer before a Tanksley layup moved Hofstra ahead to stay, 16-15.
Five straight points (on a layup and 3-pointer) by Anderson drew Delaware to within 25-22 before the Pride, which shot just 30.6 percent (11-for-36) in the first half, settled for a slim 27-22 edge at halftime.
Improving to 51.4 percent (18-for-35) from the field in the second half, Hofstra made half of its first 12 shots after the break and outscored Delaware 17-7 over the first 5:01 of the second stanza to extend its lead to 44-29.
Six straight points by the Blue Hens cut the margin to as little as 59-49 with 4:31 left, but the Pride answered with the next six points to push its advantage to 65-49, with 3:02 remaining.
Hofstra will try to stay hot through what could be the most difficult part of its CAA schedule, as the Pride will embark on a three-game road swing, with games at Charleston, Elon and Northeastern, January 8-14, before Hofstra returns home for a season-long, three-game homestand.
“We’re in the midst of a tough stretch,” Mihalich noted. “Four out of five conference games on the road, to start [league play]… but you can feel sorry for yourself or [embrace] the challenge. We like it… let’s go.”