HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — With very little expected of them prior to the season, the North Carolina-Wilmington Seahawks are quickly becoming the surprise team that no one in the Colonial Athletic Association wants to face.
Picked to finish ninth in the 10-team CAA, the Seahawks (9-8, 4-2 CAA) got even with the Hofstra Pride (13-6, 4-2 CAA) exactly two weeks after blowing an 11-point halftime lead and losing at home to the Pride, by 12 points.
This time, UNCW turned the tables, with a 46-point second half and a 10-4 game-closing run that erased a five-point halftime hole and a one-point deficit with 1:44 left, during a 79-74 win at the Mack Sports Complex on Saturday afternoon.
The win moved the Seahawks into a third-place tie with Hofstra (picked third in the league), a half-game behind Northeastern (the preseason conference favorite, which lost at home to UNCW on Jan. 5), and a game behind first-place William & Mary (which had to rally from 20 points down at home, to beat the Seahawks by four points, in UNCW’s previous game on Wednesday).
Hofstra, meanwhile, suffered its second straight loss (both in league play) after winning its first four conference games this season.
Seahawks’ leading scorer, Wilmington, N.C. native and senior guard Freddie Jackson (21 points), scored only two points over the final 18:49, as he sprained his ankle with 14:49 left and returned about four minutes later.
But fellow N.C. senior guard Addison Spruill scored 14 of his game-high 23 points and freshman guard Jordan Talley added 14 of his 17 points in the second half to key UNCW’s comeback.
Seven-foot redshirt sophomore center C.J. Gettys contributed eight of his 10 points after halftime, before fouling out with 6:13 to play.
The Pride’s leading scorer, junior forward Ameen Tanksley, had team-highs of 19 points and eight rebounds, as Hofstra, in vain, had five players score in double figures for the first time since a CAA tournament loss to Old Dominion in 2011.
While Tanksley also led the Pride with 12 first-half points, junior guard Malik Nichols was Hofstra’s best and most aggressive player in the opening stanza, while making all three of his field goal attempts and five of six free throws, and scoring 11 points.
However, head coach Joe Mihalich chose to give the Rockaway Beach, N.Y. native only three minutes of action in the second half, during which Nichols, despite being free of foul trouble, did not attempt a shot from the field or at the foul line.
“We changed our defense (switching to a zone),” Mihalich explained, as the reason for Nichols seeing such limited time in the second half after playing so well prior to that.
Although, given Nichols’ rare first-half outburst for a player that entered that game with a 5.8 scoring average, Mihalich added some peculiar reasoning for the lack of Nichols’ second-half playing time, saying, “We just have a little more offensive firepower when the other guys are in the game.”
Graduate guard Dion Nesmith likewise finished with 11 points as senior forward Moussa Kone and junior guard Juan’ya Green netted 14 points each.
After missing his first seven shots from the floor, Green’s only 3-pointer of the game, from the left corner, kept the Pride within 74-73, with 50.1 seconds left (but Hofstra’s second-leading scorer ended the day just 2-for-11, while going just 1-of-6 from 3-point range).
An ensuing five-second call on UNCW allowed Hofstra to regain the lead, but Nesmith drove done the lane and missed a left-handed layup with 46.3 seconds left.
Talley made one of two free throws to give the Seahawks a 75-73 edge, but after drawing a foul on a leaner from the left elbow, Green (9-of-11 at the line, after starting 8-for-8) missed the first of two free throws, and the Pride still trailed, 75-74, with 33.8 ticks left.
With Hofstra down, 77-74, following a pair of free throws by Addison, Green airballed a 3-pointer with 25.3 seconds remaining and exasperatingly looked toward the Mack ceiling in disbelief.
Earlier, the Pride made sure it wouldn’t get out to a slow start against the Seahawks for a second consecutive time, as Hofstra made its first three shots and raced to a 7-2 lead less than two minutes in. UNCW immediately answered with a 7-2 run of its own, though, to tie the game, 9-9.
By the time the Pride was up, 14-13, less than nine minutes in, Kone had recorded his 100th career block (the fifth in Hofstra history to reach that mark) and scored half of his team’s points to already eclipse his season average of 6.7 points per game.
Just after the Seahawks took their first lead, 15-14, and were up 17-16 by the midpoint of the half, the Pride ran off the next eight points, to go up, 24-17.
A Tanksley 3-pointer kept Hofstra’s advantage the same margin, at 34-27, but a 6-1 run brought UNCW to within 35-33.
It looked like the teams would head into the locker room that way, but an ill-advised foul by sophomore forward Chuck Ogbodo, a half-second before halftime, allowed Green (0-for-4 in the first half, including a trip of misses from 3-point range) to sink a trio of free throws for his first points of game, to extend the Pride’s lead to 38-33.
Jackson scored the first five points of the second half, to give him 19 points, on 7-of-11 shooting, while tying the game at 38-all. That sparked a 9-2 run which put UNCW up, 42-40, after a pair of layups by Gettys.
“You get what you deserve, and we didn’t deserve to win,” Mihalich said. “I thought we defended in the first half, and we obviously did not defend in the second half. We came out soft to start the second half. I thought we set the tone in the first half, and we set the tone in the second half too – the wrong way – by how we played to start the second half… we turned a lead into a nip-and-tuck game down the stretch. And the last five minutes of the game, they made plays and we didn’t… we just didn’t do what we were supposed to do to win the game.”
An injured Jackson left the game with the Pride up, 45-44, with 14:49 left. With Jackson out, however, the Seahawks went on a 7-1 run to lead, 51-46.
Hofstra responded with six of the next seven points, during a 12-5 run that put the Pride ahead, 56-54.
Showing his ankle was okay, Jackson later made nice spinning move in the lane. He missed, but Gettys tipped in the follow to keep UNCW within 62-61.
Gettys fouled out 41 seconds later, but as they did with Jackson, his teammates eventually picked him up after it appeared that the home team had taken control.
Tanksley drained a right-corner 3-pointer to make it 65-61, and a pair of free throws by Nesmith gave the Pride a 67-62 edge.
Green, the nation’s only player averaging at least 17 points, six assists and five rebounds, finally made his first shot (after seven misses) with 5:42, to push the Pride’s lead to 69-63.
Following a layup by Addison, Jackson stole the ball from Tanksley and finished with a layup, to give him his first points in 16:04, while cutting Hofstra’s lead in half, at 69-67.
Talley put the Seahawks ahead to stay, 72-70, on a 3-pointer, with 1:27 remaining, before a fastbreak layup by Addison capped an 11-1 run to make it 74-70, with 1:02 left.
Holding a sizeable 40-18 scoring advantage in the paint, UNCW’s 50-percent (14-for-28) in the second half, compared to Hofstra’s 37.5 percent (9-for-24) in the second half, kept the quick Pride (which had no fast break points in the second half) from running the way it likes to.
As Mihalich pointed out, there was a good reason for that.
“You can’t fast break if you don’t stop them” he said. “They kept scoring. If you fast break after a made field goal, it’s five-on-five, so there’s no numbers advantage.”
UNCW will look to keep surprising the rest of the league while trying to finish a three-game road swing with a winning record, when the Seahawks pay a visit to Charleston on Wednesday night.
That same evening, Hofstra will host Drexel, while seeking its first win during the middle game of a season-long three-game homestand.