HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Hofstra Pride head coach Joe Mihalich was so excited about the big opportunity his team had on Thursday night, he wasn’t able to get a good night’s rest the night before.
Yet failing to match the same sense of urgency for a key Colonial Athletic Association game, most of Mihalich’s team gave its coach a new reason for not being able to sleep through the night.
Continuing its inconsistent and sometimes lackluster play at home, Hofstra (16-10, 7-6 CAA) trailed most of the way while losing, 79-68, to the Northeastern Huskies (17-9, 9-4 CAA), as redshirt senior center Scott Eatherton scored 20 of his game-high 24 points in the second half and junior guard David Walker added 20 points to keep the Pride from further tightening the already muddled CAA standings.
A Pride win would have forged a four-way tie for third place in the conference, with Hofstra and Northeastern included in that unrealized scenario.
Instead, the Pride fell all the way into sole possession of sixth place, as the Huskies moved into a second-place tie with UNC-Wilmington, one game behind first-place William & Mary, with five regular season games left for each team in the league.
“I can’t explain it, I wish I could,” Mihalich said after Hofstra overcame an early 4-0 hole and took a brief 13-12 lead, only to fall behind, 31-20, following a 19-7 Huskies run.
“I thought we came out kind of flat in the first half,” Mihalich added. “There didn’t seem to be the energy and the enthusiasm that you need to play in this game. For the life of me, I can’t explain why because… I couldn’t sleep last night. So I don’t know why we didn’t quite have it, but we didn’t.”
Even more than with Northeastern’s best player, All-CAA team candidate Eatherton, Mihalich was most impressed by Walker, who with a dozen first-half points on 5-of-8 shooting, was the only player to score in double figures before halftime, about a month after he scored an efficient, game-high 22 points on an just six shots to lead the Huskies to a 91-83 home win over the Pride on Jan. 14.
“Walker was the toughest guy on the floor,” Mihalich said. “You can talk about Eatherton all you want. He’s terrific, but Walker… we’ve got no answers for him because he gave it to us twice now. It was all about his toughness. He’s just tougher than all of our guys.”
If it wasn’t for Hofstra’s bench, which dominated Northeastern’s reserves, 29-2, the game might have been a blowout.
Mihalich felt that two players from that unit — freshman forward Rokas Gustys (13 points, on 6-of-7 shooting, five rebounds and a game-high four steals in 24 minutes) and junior forward Malik Nichols (12 points on 6-of-11 shooting, in 18 minutes) — provided the type of resolve he expected from much of the rest of his team.
“They played with energy,” Mihalich said. “They had what I thought was missing from most of the other guys… but everybody needs to be that way. If everybody would be that way, then I think that we’d be a lot happier right now.”
For a short while, Mihalich was happy, at least after Gustys scored the final four points of the half to cap a 9-2 run that got Hofstra back in the game, at 33-29.
“I thought we were lucky to be down just four at halftime,” Mihalich said.
After that, however, Eatherton took over, and wasted no time as he started the second half on a personal 7-2 run to push the Huskies’ lead to 40-31.
Answering with the next seven points, on a Green 3-point play and layups by Nichols and Gustys, the Pride quickly drew within 40-38.
But four different Northeastern players accounted for the next nine points as the Huskies swelled their lead to 49-38 on a pair of free throws by redshirt junior forward Quincy Ford (15 points) with 11:54 remaining.
Six points from junior guard Juan’ya Green — who with 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting, was the only Hofstra player to score in double figures — and the only five points scored by sophomore guard Brian Bernardi, keyed a 15-4 spurt that closed the gap to 53-51, with 8:15 left. But the Pride would get no closer.
Walker made it 55-51 on a jumper 25 seconds later, and Hofstra twice more got the lead down to four points.
Nichols had a chance to cut that margin in half after making a nice spinning drive along the left baseline. But he left a layup attempt short with four minutes left and Ford made a 3-pointer at the other end to move the lead to 65-58.
“That really hurt because we were [only] down four points,” Nichols admitted. “It was an easy shot I had. It fell short and they came down and hit a 3. It took all the air out of us and we couldn’t bounce back.”
Senior center Moussa Kone (seven points) trimmed the lead to five points on a dunk, but Walker responded with a hanging, foul line jumper and after Green missed a 3-pointer, Walker sank a couple of free throws to give Northeastern a comfortable 69-60 lead, with 2:21 to play.
Gustys cut that deficit by one-third on a 3-point play off of an inbounds pass, but Eatherton made a layup, and following a missed jumper by Green, gave the Huskies a 73-63 edge by making the first two of 10 Northeastern free throws over the final 1:22.
Making 65 percent (13-for-20) of their field goals in the second half, the Huskies shot over 60 percent from the floor in three of the four halves they played against the Pride this season.
On the defensive end, Northeastern held Hofstra, the CAA’s leader in 3-point makes this season (235), to just four 3-pointers on 12 attempts while limiting the Pride’s leading scorer, forward Ameen Tanskley, to just nine points (about half his season average of 17.7 points per game) on a mere six shots, in his 34 minutes.
On not opting for the 3-ball as much as Hofstra is used to, Green explained, “The way they were playing, there was a lane to the basket, so we tried to get into the lane as much as we [could] to take layups.”
Doing that led to 44 points in the paint for the Pride, but the Huskies matched that number.
Complimenting Northeastern on beating Hofstra in an earlier shootout and then in a more defensive minded contest, Mihalich said, “To their credit, they won both ways. So kudos to them.”
In front of the largest and most boisterous student section, clad in white t-shirts during a promotion billed as a White Out, Mihalich was at a loss as to why the Pride, now 3-4 at home in CAA games this season, despite being 4-2 on the road within the league, seemingly failed to give maximum effort yet again, while losing a fourth conference home game this year in which Hofstra was favored.
“I have no answers for [it],” he said. “[It’s an] awesome place, love being here, great fans, I feel so bad we let the students down again. I mean, the students were terrific. I mean, they really showed up and you know, we laid an egg for them. I felt like [I wanted] to apologize to all the students that came to the game because they came to support us and we just didn’t come through for them.”
Still, with Northeastern losing to seventh-place Delaware and William & Mary dropping a game at last-place Charleston recently, the Pride — which won its first four CAA games this season — maintains hope that it can get back on track quickly and get where it wants to prior to the conference tournament in Baltimore early next month.
“We’ve just got to get back to how we were playing in the beginning,” Green said. “We’ve just got to get back in the gym and work.”
To which Nichols added, “I think we’re going to get there.”
The way things have gone at home, perhaps a change of scenery will do Hofstra some good as the Pride visits Drexel on Sunday and Towson on Wednesday before getting its shot at conference leader William & Mary, at home, the following Sunday.